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An Upstream Battle: Restoring Whychus Creek

Ideas, like large rivers, never have just one source.     -- Willy Ley

Whychus Creek, a tributary of the Deschutes River, is located near Sisters, Oregon. Ten years ago, parts of this river not only had no fish, they had no water. Irrigation withdrawals, land use changes, and dams had combined to eliminate the thousands of steelhead and Chinook salmon that once started and finished their lives in that creek. In the last fifteen years, however, a gradual shift has occurred in the Whychus Creek area and also in much of the Deschutes Basin: a coalition of landowners, citizens, nonprofits, private companies, and government agencies have come together to restore the creek as a home for migratory fish.

Whychus Creek

Whychus Creek
(Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board)

Martin Winch, author and longtime Deschutes Basin resident, explains, "It started with tiny steps...there were all these pieces that had to come together. It really takes a critical mass of people and ideas...but suddenly we woke up and there were all these people thinking 'watersheds.'" The restoration effort taking place at Whychus Creek is an endeavor involving dozens of groups and organizations, all motivated by the hope that they might together reopen the upper watershed to migratory fish, a place where the fish have not been seen in nearly five decades.


A Case Study of Stream Restoration


Whychus Creek is a fine example of restoration efforts throughout the upper Deschutes watershed. The stream begins on the slopes of the Three Sisters volcano, and flows through forested terrain and high desert agricultural lands before joining the Deschutes near its confluence with Lake Billy Chinook. Whychus Creek historically hosted Chinook salmon, and was one of the most important steelhead spawning areas in the Upper Deschutes Basin. Like other streams in the system, Whychus Creek faced three major challenges: low water levels, obstacles to migrating fish, and habitat degradation. The creek is now the subject of an intense restoration effort involving dozens of individuals and organizations who are working together to restore the creeks health and function.

Low Water Levels

Since the 1990's, the Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) has spearheaded efforts to keep more water in Deschutes Basin streams, including Whychus Creek. The approach used by DRC involves a combination of leases, water rights transfers, and conservation projects. Scott McCaulou, program director for the DRC, reflects on efforts in Whychus Creek: "If you sit back and look at it from a distance its been a series of really small, kind of grinding increments of water, a little bit at a time and its starting to add up to something substantial." McCaulou is hopeful about a new project that will give DRC endeavors at Whychus Creek a significant advancement - it will allow for an additional six cubic feet per second of instream flow, an amount that equals 25% of the DRCs summer low flow target for the creek.

This $2.1 million project is a partnership between the Three Sister Irrigation District (TSID), the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Deschutes Basin Land Trust. The project involves modifying the intake structure for the irrigation district's canal, and enclosing the canal itself. Over its four-mile course, the canal loses 50% of its water to seepage into the Deschutes Basins permeable volcanic soils and basalt bedrock. By replacing the canal with a series of pipes, water will no longer be lost to the ground. The project will eliminate water loss, reduce the districts maintenance and operating costs, and allow the district to transfer some of its long-held water rights. Some of these rights are to be transferred to the DRC to supplement instream flow. The project is slated for completion in spring 2011.

Obstacles to Fish Passage

The irrigation district project will also address the issue of reduced fish passage, a common challenge for upper Deschutes Basin streams. The Three Sisters irrigation channel has a small dam that prevents downstream fish from moving above it, and no screens to prevent fish upstream of the canal from entering it and becoming trapped. Mathias Perle, a project manager for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, noted that 5,000 fish were recovered from the canal at the end of the 2006 irrigation season.

As part of the piping project, the irrigation district will screen their diversion intake and build a ramp-like structure to allow fish to move over the dam. The U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land on which the dam sits, will also undertake a stream restoration project to improve habitat functions. The agencys goals include reducing streambed erosion, increasing the amount of vegetation along the channel, and improving the quality and number of fish habitats. As Perle describes it, "The collaboration between groups, not only the project partners but also the regulating agencies, is challenging, but it is also the best part of the project. Everybody has been on board."

Habitat Degradation

Because of the degree to which some streams in the Deschutes Basin have been changed, many channels do not provide adequate conditions for fish even if they are unblocked. In much of the upper watershed, factors such as channelization and erosion have degraded habitat conditions. Migratory fish require a surprisingly high diversity of habitats for their numerous life stages, including gravel-bottom riffles, calm backwaters, side channels, and deep pools with cover and sunken debris to hide in. Because of the complex habitat requirements of the Deschutes River fish population, Houston estimates that about half the funds spent on improvements in the upper Deschutes will be spent on habitat restoration and enhancement projects.

On Whychus Creek, local groups are undertaking several restoration projects to return some of this necessary habitat diversity. The largest projects is being undertaken at Camp Polk Meadows, a 145-acre preserve owned by the Deschutes Basin Land Trust. In the summer of 2009, the Land Trust partnered with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council to begin the $1.4 million restoration project. The plans goal is to return the Whychus Creek to the meandering course it took before the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers channelized its flow in the 1960s. The project involves the construction of a 1.7 mile channel, restoring wetlands, and planting 150,000 individual native plants. The project aims to provide fish spawning and rearing habitat, reduce stream temperature, and increase late season flow.

Even though Whychus Creek has changed over the years - arguably not for the better - the creek is still a special place for many people. Martin Winch, who volunteers for the Deschutes Basin Land Trust, became so enamored with Camp Polk Meadows that he used it as the subject of his book. Called Biography of a Place, the book describes the history of Central Oregon through the characters that are drawn to the meadow, including Native Americans, trappers, soldiers and settlers.

In the book, each successive generation had a new and different perspective about the meadow: Native Americans once knew the meadows as a seasonal camping and gathering place, but modern agency engineers worried about the creeks potential for destructive floods. Wynch sees the restoration efforts as the latest chapter in the narrative of Whychus Creek, and the result of renewed enthusiasm for protecting Deschutes Basin streams. "The hydrologists are really the last players", Whychus says. "No one is going to invite them in and support a project or even conceive of it until people come to relate and care."


Deschutes Basin Land Trust

Upper Deschutes Watershed Council

Camp Polk Meadows Preserve

Portland General Electric website on the Pelton-Round Butte project fish passage project

Authored by Maria Wright, Institute for Natural Resources and Caitlin Bell, Staff, Oregon Explorer; Reviewed by Brett Golden, Deschutes River Conservancy and Mathias Perle, Upper Deschutes Watershed Council

Read An Upstream Battle, the Story of Restoring Whychus Creek