Sisters stream rerouted

February 29, 2012
Sisters stream rerouted

Decade long Whychus Creek project will help fish

By Dylan J. Darling

SISTERS — What started as a trickle grew quickly into a rush Tuesday morning as Whychus Creek flowed into its new course through Camp Polk Meadow Preserve.

“It's an amazing moment,” said Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust. “There were times when I never thought we'd get to this point.”

The project to restore and reroute the creek required more than a decade of development and involved the cooperation of several groups and agencies, including the Deschutes Land Trust, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and the U.S. Forest Service. In all, about $2 million in state, federal and private grants was spent on the project, said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

The idea for the restoration occurred in 1997, when the Deschutes Land Trust, with the help of Portland General Electric, started negotiations to buy the preserve.

“Today we finally turned the water on, and the creek is flowing through this meadow for the first time in 50 years,” Houston said.

Whychus Creek's new channel features more bends and pools than its old, straight run through the meadow.

While young steelhead and salmon from the Round Butte Fish Hatchery have been introduced into Whychus Creek in recent years, this year adult fish will likely be spawning there for the first time in more than 40 years. Earlier this month, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs announced a plan to restore salmon and steelhead to the Upper Deschutes River and its tributaries. Whychus Creek, formerly known as Squaw Creek, is one of those tributaries.

The Pelton-Round Butte dam complex, built in the 1950s and 1960s, created an obstacle to fish passage, and the Round Butte hatchery was built to replace the native runs. Half of the hatchery-bred salmon and steelhead that return to the dam complex this year from the Pacific Ocean will be trapped, then hauled by truck around the three power-producing dams. The tribes and Portland General Electric jointly own the dams.

This year will see the first full run of returning fish since the tribes and PGE completed a $100 million submerged fish tower in late 2009. The tower allows young fish like those released in Whychus Creek to swim downstream to the sea.

“This is critical habitat and is essential to that restoration,” Chalfant said.

Whychus Creek's new route through Camp Polk Meadow should become a stronghold for steelhead, Chalfant has said. The design also allows the creek to flood parts of the 145-acre meadow, the bulk of which the Deschutes Land Trust bought from a private landowner in 2000. Such flooding hasn't occurred in the meadow since the early 1960s.

In 1964 a fierce winter storm caused major flooding in the meadow, Chalfant said. The next year, the Army Corps of Engineers responded by designing a straight channel on the south edge of the meadow, where the creek has flowed since.

The old course had two or three “real pools,” versus nearly 40 in the new course, said Paul Powers, a fish biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. The pools provide refuge for the fish.

“This is a much better place for fish to live,” he said.

Excavators and bulldozers etched the creek's new course through the meadow in 2009. Tuesday, their diesel motors rumbled again as they loaded dirt into a logjam placed where the old straightaway began. The earthen plug pushed water into the new course, which Chalfant said covers about 1¾ miles compared with the old course's 1¼-mile run.

As the water level in the old course dropped, teams of state, federal and private scientists, as well as volunteers — about 60 people in all — used electrically charged backpacks to stun fish that had been left behind. They were netted and dropped into buckets, which biologists and volunteers carried to the creek's new course.

“Saving lives one bucket at a time,” said Aaron Maxwell, a project manager for the Deschutes River Conservancy.

Biologists and volunteers will renew the search for stranded fish today.

Although Whychus Creek now runs through its new course, Chalfant said the restoration of the meadow isn't over. Another 18,000 native plants are set this spring to join the 180,000 sedges, willows, dogwoods and other native plants already planted around the meadow in the past three years.

“There will be work do for years to come,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

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