Whychus Creek flows through hundreds of miles of Central Oregon forest—originating at the base of the Bend Glacier, winding its way north through the Three Sisters Wilderness and finally emptying into the Deschutes River. The Pelton-Round Butte hydroelectric dam then impounds the Deschutes downstream, creating the upper Deschutes Basin. For nearly 50 years, salmon and steelhead were absent from 226 miles of this area. But, in the late 1990s, all that changed.
Ecological and Economic Need
Residential development in the region continues to drive up land prices and contribute to the conversion of agricultural lands and floodplain habitats. Local farmers and ranchers struggle with the regulations and implied costs associated with endangered species and Department of Environmental Quality-protected streams. And, until the late ‘90s, Whychus Creek went dry nearly every summer as irrigation withdrawals exceeded natural stream flows and flood control efforts altered 18 miles of stream, isolating the floodplain, dropping the water table, and eliminating essential salmon habitat.
A New Model for Collaboration
Over the last two decades, in order to address the problems stemming from past land use practices, members of the Deschutes Partnership group have worked with landowners. Addressing stream flow, floodplain restoration, irrigation improvements and creating a working lands conservation easement to improve fish passage and habitat within the upper Deschutes Basin, has made local agriculture more resilient. Part of this effort included the West Coast’s largest reintroduction of anadromous fish (fish that live primarily in saltwater but return to freshwater to spawn) to the area.
Keeping Businesses in Business
Farmers and ranchers’ ability to regulate development and secure funding through working lands conservation easements has been vital to keeping local agricultural operations profitable. Additionally, irrigation canals—which put “saved” water back into the water system—have led to improved, lower-cost irrigation systems, and the creation of a small hydro project, which generates additional revenue for the irrigation district.
Prosperity for All
A key steelhead and salmon spawning and rearing stream has come back to life and is beginning to function naturally, in ways that will contribute to the restoration of mid-Columbia stock steelhead. Beyond that, a broad range of species have benefitted from the protection and restoration of the floodplains and riparian habitats. And today local contractors continue to monitor the restoration projects for long-term effectiveness. These efforts are an example of community-based problem solving and collaboration that benefits local wildlife as well as the agricultural community.
The rebirth of Whychus Creek has included protection of more than eight miles of stream, including restoration of three miles, removal or replacement of six dams or diversions, improved irrigation efficiency for local agriculture with more water for fish, increased recreational opportunities, benefits for the local economy, and enhanced property values. Farmers and ranchers have lower operating costs, more reliable irrigation and a legal, safe harbor under the Endangered Species Act.
The long-term success of Whychus Creek depends on community engagement and the financial resources to assist nonprofits and private landowners in their efforts. The challenges faced here are not unique and other watershed councils, land trusts and water trusts throughout the state are beginning to collaborate, hoping to achieve similar improvements in their own environments, for all of their inhabitants.