Two decades of Whychus Creek restoration
Last updated 11/9/2021 at Noon
A 20-year collaboration involving federal, state, and local agencies and organizations, as well as local farmers and the Tribes, has brought about the restoration of a once neglected Whychus Creek.
Prior to the arrival of American settlers in the Upper Deschutes Basin in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Whychus Creek was a source of fish and water for the native tribes who lived and traveled through the region.
Then came settlement of the western United States, encouraged by passage of the Carey Act in 1894. Settlers were given 160 acres of land if they lived on it, and within 10 years’ time cultivated at least 20 acres with irrigated agriculture.
Lying in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, the High Desert receives only about 13 inches of rain a year, and almost none in the summer months. In order to successfully farm, irrigation would be needed and all eyes turned toward the neighboring mountains and their glacier-fed lakes and streams. All that was needed was to divert the streams into man-made canals and ditches that could carry the water to the farms, a difficult and time-consuming process. Eventually, Sisters Country was crisscrossed by numerous ditches with names such as Plainview, Uncle John, and Leithauser.
Soon after those first irrigation diversions were established along the settler-renamed Squaw Creek in 1871, the summer months would see the creek occasionally run dry as irrigation demands increased. By 1912, a dry creek was a regular occurrence. Between 1960 and 1999, two out of every three years saw the creek run dry in summer.
Squaw Creek Irrigation District (SCID) and its farmers began to consider that conservation of water might help avert future conflicts while delivering more water to the farms. Starting in 1998, in partnership with Natural Resources Conservation Service and the SCID farmers, the District began piping 11 private laterals to stop the loss of almost 50 percent of the diverted flow to seepage into the ground and evaporation.
In 1999, changes in the way the creek was viewed led a collaboration of farmers, government officials, and conservation organizations to start working together to bring back summer streamflow to Squaw Creek. That was the beginning of a massive effort spanning the next 20 years to restore the creek to health in order to support the reintroduction of anadromous fish (migrating up rivers from the sea to spawn in fresh water) population above the Pelton-Round Butte dams.
Other cultural perspectives and values began to change as well. In 2001, a state law made it illegal to use the word “Squaw” in a name. The U.S. Forest Service, in consultation with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, chose to change Squaw Creek back to historic Sahaptin name, Whychus Creek, meaning “The Place We Cross the Water.” The irrigation district changed its name to Three Sisters Irrigation District (TSID).
Portland General Electric, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife led the effort to reintroduce salmon and steelhead to Whychus Creek. The concerted efforts of many local, state, and federal partners and funders, who came together in support of successful restoration work in the creek, have enabled restored stream conditions to support the successful reintroduction of salmon and steelhead.
Upper Deschutes Watershed Council’s (UDWC) Mathias Perle has overseen the habitat restoration work along the creek for the past decade, creating environments that will bring back and sustain fish and wildlife. One of the largest projects was the re-meandering of the creek through Camp Polk Meadow, creating lush wetlands supporting native vegetation, providing safe pools for fish, and allowing for natural flooding of the creek out over the meadow.
The USFS, which oversees the Deschutes National Forest in which Whychus Creek is located, has provided hundreds of trees from their thinning projects to be added to the creek bank and in-stream to create natural spawning and rest areas for the fish. They also provided habitat boulders, gravel, and cobble for the in-stream restoration work.
A consortium including the UDWC, Deschutes River Conservancy, and the Deschutes Land Trust (DLT), with TSID, has done the bulk of the work in the creek. Large sections of the 41-mile creek have been preserved for all time under the protection of the DLT. The UDWC has planned and supervised large and small in-stream restoration projects and repair of riparian areas and will continue monitoring the stream.
All 17 dams/barriers have been removed, fish screens installed to keep fish out of the agricultural diversions, stretches of the creek re-meandered, and thousands of young fish reintroduced to the creek, to hopefully complete the life cycle by making it to the ocean and returning to the creek to spawn. Mike Riehle, USFS District fish biologist, reported that last spring a Chinook salmon was spotted close to Sisters and steelhead have come as far as a mile and a half from the Plainview project above Sisters.
“Now that the last dam has been removed and a fish screen installed, fish have the whole Whychus drainage open to passage,” Riehle said. “High water temperatures on the lower part of the creek are still being evaluated, however.” Fish native to Whychus Creek are cold-water fish.
According to TSID District Manager Marc Thalacker, the irrigation district has piped 60 of 65 miles of irrigation canals, to help restore water to the creek while maintaining and improving water distribution to the District’s patrons. Three hydroelectric facilities have been built with the ultimate goal of making TSID carbon neutral.
All of these projects are designed to return the creek to ecological health while at the same time supporting community needs such as farming, improved energy conservation, and recreational access.