Fish habitat restoration succeeding at Camp Polk

May 14, 2013
Fish habitat restoration succeeding at Camp Polk

Ever since the Deschutes Land Trust (DLT) took last year's historic step of returning Whychus Creek to its original meandering path at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve, anxious eyes have watched to see how the fish would adapt.

Last week, longtime DLT board member Rod Bonacker led a group of local residents on a fish-oriented tour of the new Whychus Creek channel to discuss just that.

Bonacker began his tour with a brief history of the historic salmon and steelhead runs of the Deschutes Basin and their demise after construction and completion of the Pelton-Round Butte Dam complex in the early 1960s, but his primary focus was on the recent efforts to restore the runs. One point was clear. He described the entire process as unique, both in scope and in the unprecedented cooperation among public agencies, private organizations, private industry, and the native tribes.

According to Bonacker, the restoration of anadromous fish runs to the region has a total projected price tag of approximately $300 million, of which $170 million have already been spent. The physical blockade of the rivers was the biggest problem for the fish, but at about the same time, many miles of Whychus Creek (then Squaw Creek) were channelized to control flooding.

The process of carving deeper, straighter channels resulted in a faster, sluice-like stream that wiped out much of the creek's excellent historic fish spawning habitat. Bonacker pointed out that much behind-the-scenes work was necessary to get the Camp Polk stretch of Whychus Creek restored to its present situation.

One of the most expensive aspects of the project was the design and installation of a massive water-flow system at the Round Butte Dam. Upstream fish traffic past the dams was proven possible even in the 1960s. The problem, it turned out, was that the dam created artificial currents and temperature gradients that made it impossible for the young fish to find their way out and back to the ocean. The "fish tower," completed in 2010, was the method selected to remedy that; and all indications are that it is working.

Another of the key aspects of the project involved returning more water-flow to the stream. Historically, Bonacker described the area as "supporting very robust spawning. Then the people came and began using the stream banks," he said. "By the early 1900s, most of Whychus Creek was appropriated for irrigation."

Sometimes the water flow was oversubscribed to the point that the creek went completely dry. Bonacker said that between 1998 and 2008, approximately 30 cubic feet per second of water-flow was returned to Whychus Creek. He stressed that, without the extensive cooperation among all the parties, the Camp Polk restoration and other such projects would not have been possible.

With maps, diagrams, and numerous photographs, Bonacker next took his presentation to the banks of the stream itself, where he traced the life cycles of the various salmonids that make their home in the Deschutes Basin. He also confessed and described his lifelong love affair with fish. As the special projects coordinator for the Deschutes and Ochoco National Forests, he began his Forest Service career nearly 40 years ago; and he clearly enjoys having the opportunity to take part in projects such as this.

Although last week's warm weather resulted in rapid snowmelt that caused the waters to be somewhat murky, Bonacker was still able to point out several redds, or fish "nests," in the new channel. In fact, he said, the first new redds were found within a month of the diversion of the flow into the reconstructed channel, indicating that the new habitat was, indeed, to the fishes' liking.

The channel reconstruction was crafted in such a way as to closely follow much of the stream's original path through the site. Just as importantly, care was taken to create a varied habitat picture as the creek winds its way across its historic flood-plain. With slow-moving bends, quiet eddies, and fast-moving riffles, the varied habitat of the "new" creek passes over stretches of cantaloupe-sized river rock, small gravel, and even silt and sand.

The net result is a stream that caters to multiple forms of aquatic life and restores the spawning habitat that was lost 50 years ago. Of course, the previous fast-moving waters supported fish, and every effort was made to relocate those fish to the new channel. The former channel, although containing some residual wetlands, is now often seasonally dry.

To accomplish the fish relocation when the streamflow was diverted, the fish were shocked - by a well-insulated in-water operator - with a backpack device that temporarily immobilized them. Volunteers used nets to collect the stunned fish, then placed them in buckets to move them to the new channel, where they quickly recovered.

That relocation effort helped the native redband trout and other permanent resident species. The real test, however, is whether the extensive restocking efforts of anadromous species such as steelhead and salmon will be successful. Early indications are promising, and a few early returning fish have been spotted. Those numbers are expected to grow.

Only time will tell if the effort and the expense will pay off. At present, the fish that commute between the Deschutes Basin and the ocean are trucked around the Pelton-Round Butte Dams. If it appears that the restoration plan is working, even more money will be poured into the region's waters, including new features that will ultimately eliminate the trucks and let the fish do most of the work themselves.

Although public access to the majority of the Camp Polk Meadow Preserve is limited, free tours may be scheduled by contacting the Deschutes Land Trust. To sign up for a tour or for further information contact 541-330-0017 or visit

Share this post
An aerial view of a body of water.