September 13, 2009 - Bend Bulletin Fish Reintroduction: The Work, The Money And The Risks

September 16, 2009
September 13, 2009 - Bend Bulletin Fish Reintroduction: The Work, The Money And The Risks

Fish Reintroduction: The work, the money and the risks behind dozens of projects
By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin
Last modified: September 13. 2009 6:02PM PST

More than two dozen projects in the Whychus, Metolius and Crooked River basins are in the works to make the area more fish-friendly. The long-term goal is to eventually have about 1,000 steelhead and 1,000 chinook return each year.

Metolius River

• Metolius River fish enhancement ($586,399)
• Habitat restoration project at Lake Creek Lodge ($225,000)
• Jack Creek water conservation project ($285,525)
• Lake Creek culvert removal ($119,222)
• Metolius stream bank habitat restoration and road closures ($29,685)
• Metolius Preserve*
• Spring Creek conservation easement*
Total: about $1.2 million**

Crooked River

• McKay Creek water exchange program (about $2 million)
• Study of Crooked River ecosystem flow needs (about $100,000)
• McKay Creek restoration project ($72,675)• North Unit Irrigation District screen replacement (about $1.1 million)
• McKay Creek culvert replacement ($200,225)
• Peoples Irrigation District diversion passage and screening ($441,790)
• Crooked River Central Irrigation District diversion project ($648,920)
Total: about $4.5 million**

Whychus Creek

• Restoration at Camp Polk (about $1.2 million)
• Camp Polk acquisition*
• Three Sisters Irrigation District McKenzie Canyon piping (about $4 million)
• Three Sisters Irrigation District main canal piping (about $3.5 million)
• Three Sisters Irrigation District screening and fish passage ($280,970)
• Rimrock Ranch habitat restoration project ($2.1 million)
• Rimrock Ranch conservation easement*
• Alder Springs Ranch*
• Restoration and management plan for Whychus through Sisters ($109,000)
• Lazy Z Water Transfer in Sisters (about $491,000)
• Whychus Creek fish habitat restoration ($29,908)
• Dispersed camping project to restore streamside habitat ($142,500)
• Whychus Creek fish passage and screening program ($392,840)
• Wolftree community restoration and education project ($700,000)
Total: about $13 million**

Fish passage project at Lake Billy Chinook

Fish runs can't begin until a $100 million facility is completed here to collect and transport the fish around the dams.
Since the spring of 2007, biologists with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have carefully placed more than 2 million tiny steelhead and chinook salmon fry into rivers and creeks of the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins.

They're the first of their kind to swim in Central Oregon's rivers in about 50 years, after a series of three dams blocked their migration route to the Pacific Ocean.

But now, construction crews are at work, welding together a $100 million underwater structure designed to collect fish and safely transport them around the Pelton Round Butte dam complex in an effort to bring back the runs of chinook and steelhead. The goal is to have the passage facility at Lake Billy Chinook complete so the tiny fry will be able to get past the dams.

In anticipation of those runs, at least a half-dozen area organizations are taking a different approach to helping the fish — spending at least $25 million so far to restore stream banks, let more water flow down the rivers and remove obstacles like irrigation dams — and more projects are on the way. With millions of dollars in funding, groups including the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River watershed councils, the Deschutes Basin Land Trust and the Deschutes River Conservancy are pooling their efforts in a unique way, ramping up projects to ensure that those tiny fish have a healthy habitat to grow up in and return to.

“We don't want to build our whiz-bang fish passage system and then find out that there's no place for fish to live,” said Steve Corson, a spokesman with Portland General Electric.

PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — which co-own the dams and are building the fish passage facility as part of their federal relicensing requirements — have set up the Pelton Fund, designed to dole out more than $27 million to habitat improvement projects over 15 years. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, a state grant-giving agency funded by the lottery, is also a major promoter of the efforts, with $4 million devoted to the projects and the possibility of another $4 million grant.

“Our watersheds still have a lot of work to be done on them,” said Bobby Brunoe, natural resources manager with Warm Springs. But the fish reintroduction presents an opportunity to create a sustainable population of fish, and perhaps even a fishery in the future. “There's a lot of optimistic people on this right now,” he said. “There's a lot of money also being spent on it.”

Over the years, stream banks have been damaged by grazing, said Scot Lawrence, with the Pelton Fund. Irrigators have been using water for their fields, drying up some sections of streams and placing obstacles in waterways. People have removed big logs from streams, thinking it would help, but they are actually hurting the natural habitat.

“The Pelton Fund, along with other funding resources out there, this is an opportunity to correct some of those mistakes that were made over the years,” Lawrence said.

A number of organizations are working together to take advantage of that opportunity.

“The unique thing about the Deschutes (basin) is the integration of land conservation, water conservation, and then habitat restoration and rehabilitation,” said Ken Bierly, deputy director of the watershed enhancement board. “It's an integrated effort that is, in my personal opinion, unparalleled.”

The goal is to eventually have about 1,000 steelhead and 1,000 chinook return each year, said Mike Gauvin with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. That's a long-term goal, however, and it could take 15 or more years to get there, he said.

In the 1950s, there were counts of between 600 and 1,000 adult steelhead in Whychus Creek, Gauvin said, and there are historical estimates of between 1,000 and 2,000 chinook salmon some years in the creek and the Metolius River.

To reach those figures again, many projects are focused in a few areas that have potential to become prime habitat.

There are three general categories that most of the restoration work falls into, said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. Some projects are designed to allow fish to get past obstacles in the waterways, like irrigation diversions; some efforts increase the amount of water, since having more water flowing down creeks and rivers improves water quality; and other projects improve the physical habitat to benefit fish.

“Almost every project that's happening touches on at least one of those three issues, and some touch on all three,” Houston said.

The projects

Whychus Creek is a good example, he said.

In the mid-1990s, the Deschutes Basin Land Trust and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council first zeroed in on Camp Polk Meadow, where Whychus Creek had been forced into a straight channel, wiping out premium steelhead habitat, said Brad Chalfant, executive director of the land trust. So the land trust started working to buy the property, and the watershed council worked on designing a plan for building a new, more naturally winding creek.

“We're almost 13 years into that project, and we're now restoring the creek, putting the meanders and bends back,” Chalfant said. “It's pretty exciting to see all of that happen.”

And on top of that, the Deschutes River Conservancy was working with irrigators to allow more water to flow down Whychus Creek.

The groups worked together so that individual projects could build on each other, said Brad Nye with the Land Trust.

“With the reintroduction actually becoming real, we can do a lot more together in a focused area than we can just by responding to various things occurring in our respective areas of operations,” Nye said.

While the land trust purchases and conserves blocks of land, the Deschutes River Conservancy focuses on putting more water back in streams — since more water means cooler temperatures, better water quality and more habitat along the edges of streams and rivers.

“Without water, the fish don't have anything, so we've tackled what is really the thorniest natural resource issue,” said Tod Heisler, the executive director of the river conservancy.

With stimulus funds, the organization is working with the Three Sisters Irrigation District to enclose its canal in pipe to save water. The effort, scheduled to start this fall, will allow more water to flow down Whychus Creek.

The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council is also working on plans to create a way around the biggest irrigation diversion on Whychus Creek, said Houston, executive director of the organization. That project, scheduled to be complete by spring 2011, could open up 10 miles of fish-friendly habitat.

In the Metolius River area, the Forest Service and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council are working this week on a multiyear project to add large logs to the river to create hiding places and calm pools for young fish.

The Forest Service is also putting boulders along other sections of the Metolius to close off roads and paths to ATVs, said Mike Riehle, a fish biologist with the Sisters Ranger District, and instead planting vegetation along the stream to provide shade and cover.

“The trails and the roads that lead to a bare area along the stream can wash soil into the stream,” Riehle said. “The siltation in the spawning areas can be unhealthy for the fish.”

In the Crooked River watershed, the river conservancy is also working with an irrigation district to try to increase the flow of water in McKay Creek, which could potentially provide significant habitat for steelhead and salmon.

And at the same time, the Crooked River Watershed Council is working on developing a strategy for improving the bank-side habitat along McKay, said Devin Best, restoration project manager with the council.

The council is also in the midst of putting in fish ladders on two irrigation diversion dams to let migrating fish move up and down the Crooked River.

“First and foremost is making sure the fish can move through the system unimpeded,” Best said.

The biggest obstacle is a hydropower dam at the mouth of the Crooked River — a 32-foot-tall wall blocking fish passage — and Best said groups are trying to work with the dam operator on finding a way for fish to bypass the structure.

In all, more than two dozen projects in the Whychus, Metolius and Crooked River basins are in various stages of planning and construction — all designed to make the area more fish-friendly.

Risks involved

Those involved with the work realize there's a risk involved in the projects. The segments of the fish passage facility broke apart in April, and although it's slated to be finished next spring, if the untested structure doesn't work, the salmon and steelhead continue to be blocked from the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins.

But the conservationists say even without salmon and steelhead runs, the work is worth the tens of millions that will be invested in cleaning up the watersheds.

“What the reintroduction has done is provide funding opportunities to restore streams and creeks and ... rivers here in the upper basin, and we all very much hope that reintroduction is successful ... and we expect it will be,” Heisler said. “If not, the health of these rivers and streams is important, generally speaking, for other native species and for people.”

Healthy streams and rivers are good not only for species like hawks, songbirds and other animals, but also strengthen the local economy by creating places where people want to go hiking and fishing, said Chalfant, with the Deschutes Basin Land Trust.

Still, bringing back salmon and steelhead is what's providing the motivation for the work, he said.

“It's the specter of bringing back a historic run that has captured the imagination of so many people,” Chalfant said.

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at


Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2008

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