If there are any questions about the changes of water usage in Sisters Country, all one has to do is look at Whychus Creek, the Metolius River - and now Suttle Lake. Where irrigation and recreation were once the only interests in water, now projects favoring fish are everywhere.
The latest of these projects is the modification of Suttle Lake dam, where starts Lake Creek on its journey to the sea.
Nate Dachtler, fishery biologist on the Sisters District, with the help of Paul Powers, Cari Press, and Alan Buehrig, prepared a hydrological design to provide fish passage and improve habitat at the dam built in 1960 at the outlet of Suttle Lake.
The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs partnered on the project.
The old 1930s concrete dam remnants are being removed from the lake, and a new outlet will allow passage of all life stages of fish (per ODFW fish passage criteria) and provide improved habitat for spawning, rearing, and migration at the outlet of the lake.
Last Thursday, the crew working on the new dam watched as Ron Bussard, operating an excavator, deftly removed the heavy plastic pond liner and then concrete ecoblocks holding back the water, and the level of the lake slowly began to lower approximately 0.3 inch.
Three-tenths-of-an-inch reduction of the level in Suttle Lake may not sound like much - but coupled with a new design of the outlet, with riffles that encourage and contribute to fish health, an island, and a new side channel for high-water time - it means all the fish wanting to, can get to and from Suttle Lake safely.
Records of historical sockeye runs to Suttle Lake that went on up to spawn in Link Creek are sparse, but it is known that a run did exist, which may have been extinct by 1940, previous to the completion of the Pelton Round Butte Dams. An earlier power dam built at the outlet of Suttle Lake had a fish ladder, but passage may have been used only under the right conditions.
Also, a dam and swimming pool were built at Lake Creek Lodge some time between 1925 and 1948; all of these structures apparently had passage problems and may have started to contribute to the decline of sockeye as early as 1925.
Spring Chinook were documented spawning in Lake Creek prior to the construction of a hatchery on Spring Creek in 1947. After the hatchery was in place, a fish rack was placed on the Metolius River to capture the entire run of Chinook, and the last good Chinook run observed at the Spring Creek Hatchery was in 1953.
Currently, redband trout, bull trout, Chinook salmon, brown trout, brook trout, Kokanee salmon, mountain whitefish, sculpins and longnose dace inhabit Lake Creek. A smolt trap set up on Lake Creek at the outlet of Suttle Lake found Kokanee smolts leaving Suttle Lake into Lake Creek during the springtime.