Partnership moves forward to restore Deschutes River parks

Apr 26, 2018

Bend Bulletin

Partnership moves forward to restore Deschutes River parks With parks along the banks of the Deschutes River at risk of being trampled, the Bend Park & Recreation District and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council are working to restore and protect fragile habitat.

“We love that people love the river; we just want to make sure that people aren’t loving it to death,” said Ryan Houston, executive director of the council.

Earlier this month, the park district board said it wanted to work with the Bend-based nonprofit, which handles watershed restoration along the upper portion of the Deschutes River. The two organizations will collaborate on a variety of projects aimed at restoring riparian areas — the areas where land and water meet — in riverside parks in Bend and Tumalo.

The first project under the new arrangement, which would restore a section of river between the Bill Healy Bridge and the Farewell Bend footbridge to a more natural environment, will likely kick off in 2019.

While the two organizations have worked previously on a project-by-project basis, Perry Brooks, project manager for the park district, said a more formal partnership signals a larger shift in approach for the district. He added that a partnership would allow the district to take a more holistic approach toward how Bendites use the Deschutes River and the parks along its banks.

“We need to really get a handle on access to the river,” Brooks said.

Houston estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 people float the Deschutes River in and around Bend each year, primarily during the summer. While many enter through designated areas, such as the landing at Riverbend Park, Houston said, plenty enter the river through informal trails through Bend parks.

As Bend’s population and its number of visitors have grown, Houston said, the number of unauthorized user trails has grown alongside it.

He said these informal trails, and the human and dog footsteps that form them, can damage local riparian areas. Houston added that plants grow more slowly in Central Oregon than in other parts of the state, and the small plants growing alongside riverbanks are easily damaged. And once the soil gets compacted, it gets more difficult for the plants to grow again.

Houston said during an April meeting with the park district that riparian areas cover about 2 percent of Oregon’s high desert environment, but contribute around 75 percent of the plant and animal species living there.

“The wildlife along the river absolutely needs intact riparian areas,” Houston said.

While it isn’t particularly difficult to replant native vegetation, reducing the impact in and around Bend’s parks is a priority for the watershed council.

“Managing people is a big part of it,” Houston said.

Brooks added that park design along the river can play a role as well, through the inclusion of more fortified access points to the Deschutes River.

Additionally, easements and utility lines make access to riverbanks more of a challenge in urban areas than along more rural portions of the Deschutes River. Because of all that, a more formal partnership with the park district makes sense for the nonprofit.

The organizations have collaborated on projects since 2002, when they began work on Farewell Bend park, near a then-newly constructed portion of Reed Market Road. Houston described the parcel as looking similar to a parking lot in dire need of vegetation.

“It had a fairly industrial past,” Houston said.

They planted shrubs and other vegetation native to Central Oregon’s riparian areas across a portion of the new park, located behind fencing to help preserve it. Much of the park remains open to visitors, but Houston said the park was the first to incorporate fencing to protect native vegetation.

The watershed council’s presentation to the park district board highlighted about a dozen projects that could emerge out of their partnership, though Houston said many were dependent on future opportunities to secure grant funding. Brooks added that the working arrangement would not include a provision for sharing costs, but would allow for collaboration on grant funding opportunities.

Brooks said the a pilot project, which would add vegetation and river access points to the area near Bill Healy Bridge, will go through the district’s scoping process soon. He estimated that the project will cost up to a couple hundred thousand dollars. The project will likely break ground sometime next spring.

“They’re the authority on river restoration,” Brooks said. “They have a long history of success.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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