Big step for Sisters meadow

Nov 08, 2011

Bend Bulletin

Big step for Sisters meadow

Project to give Whychus Creek a natural path

By Dylan J. Darling

SISTERS — For the second time in three years, heavy machinery is rumbling through a serene meadow northeast of Sisters for the sake of salmon and steelhead.

An excavator, a bulldozer and dump trucks this week are finishing the construction of a meandering channel to carry Whychus Creek through Camp Polk Meadow, said Amanda Egertson, stewardship director for the Deschutes Land Trust. A number of side channels will spread water around the 145-acre preserve, which the nonprofit group bought nearly 12 years ago.

“It is fun to walk around the side channel and imagine what it will be like to be a fish,” Egertson said.

The new route avoids straight lines as it weaves through the meadow, zigging and zagging its way around clumps of new creekside plants.

The curves will create calm waters where young fish can rest, said Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust.

This contrasts with the creek’s current incarnation as a swift-moving straight line skirting the south edge of the meadow. Chalfant describes the stretch as “one continuous riffle.”

Whychus Creek’s straight course through Camp Polk Meadow has been a problem for fish managers and other officials who’ve attempted in recent years to restore ocean-going salmon and steelhead to the upper Deschutes River, into which the creek flows. Storm flows quickly wash young fish released into the creek downstream to Lake Billy Chinook, where they’re easy prey for larger fish, Chalfant said.

“That’s the reason we are trying to put the kinks back into the creek and the creek back into the meadow,” he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers designed the creek’s straight course after a flood in 1964, Chalfant said, eliminating its natural turns through the meadow. U.S. Forest Service hydrologists and fish and biologists have been involved with the redesign, taking hints from the creek’s own history.

Those hints are found in “relic channel scars,” or remnants of old creek courses, aerial photos from the 1940s and ’50s and studies of similar streams, said Cari Press, a hydrologist with the Deschutes National Forest. Planning the creek’s construction started in 2005.

The first phase of the project occurred in 2009, when tractors etched the new lines of the creek, Egertson said. The meadow then remained free from heavy machinery for a time, allowing replanted willows, dogwoods and other streamside plants — 200,000 in all — to grow into their new home.

The restoration project also involves the placement of 700 logs and 5,000 cubic yards of rock to fortify the creek, Egertson said. The heavy work should be done at the end of this week or early next week, and a trickle of water will be diverted into the new channel to prime it for next spring.

In March, there will be one last construction project in the meadow using the big equipment — plugging the creek’s current straight course and routing the creek into the new run.

Chalfant said it will be the culmination of a dream that started in 1997, when the Deschutes Land Trust started negotiations to buy the property. The purchase took place in 2000 with the help of Portland General Electric.

“There is a lot of time and energy that went into this before we ever brought a bulldozer out to the meadow,” Chalfant said.

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