SISTERS — Work crews began diverting a portion of Whychus Creek into a restored channel last week in an effort to return the tributary to its natural state and create habitat for fish and wildlife.
Crews recently dug out portions of the former channel network that had existed before the creek was straightened to prevent flooding in the 1960s.
The restoration project is taking place along a 1½-mile stretch in the northernmost part of the Whychus Canyon Preserve northeast of Sisters.
The 930-acre preserve is owned and managed by the Deschutes Land Trust. The restoration project includes a partnership with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council as well as the Deschutes National Forest, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and others.
“This is a very big step on a very important reach of the creek and will ultimately have big implications for the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead,” said Brad Chalfant, executive director of the land trust.
A steelhead was spotted near the Camp Polk Meadow Preserve upstream of the project earlier this year and may have spawned with another in the creek. A fish tower was installed in Lake Billy Chinook in 2009 to allow fish to travel past the lake into Central Oregon rivers and tributaries.
While the desire to bring back salmon and steelhead has driven funding for the project on Whychus Creek, Chalfant said the land trust and partners fully expect the restoration to benefit other species as well, particularly birds.
On Wednesday, biologists removed fish downstream of where the creek was diverted so they could be placed in the restored channel system. Sandbags were used to shift water into the channels dug by work crews in recent weeks. Logs were laid across the channels so fish can use them for shelter and shade.
Project partners are planning to plant up to 65,000 grasses, shrubs and wildflowers around the channels along the creek to stabilize them and provide wildlife habitat.
The creek had historically flooded into a floodplain meadow, but now the trust owns the land where private landowners wanted flooding controlled. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erected berms to straighten the creek’s path. Without adjacent side channels and a meandering path, the creek flows too quickly for fish.
“Fish need the structure and need to be able to get out of high-velocity flows,” Chalfant said.
Hydrologists and biologists expect the creek to find and create new channels as well, as water spreads out across the meadow.
“We fully anticipate to see a lot of change over time,” said Mathias Perle, project manager with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.
The project designers reviewed aerial photos of the creek from several decades ago to see what some of the channel network looked like before it was straightened. They also used lidar to see where the creek used to flow. The technology maps topographic features with a light laser.
The restoration project is the first phase in a long-term plan to return 6 miles of the creek to its former state in the canyon preserve. The organization previously restored a portion of the creek at the Camp Polk Meadow Preserve in 2012.
Chalfant said the land trust learned a lot from the Camp Polk project and is building upon that experience with the current restoration effort.
The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, various agencies and foundations funded the project. Money was also provided from the Pelton Round Butte Fund, which is managed by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
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