New art is featured on the Creekside Park bridge.photo by Sue Stafford
New art is featured on the Creekside Park bridge.photo by Sue Stafford
If all goes according to plan, the instream and bank restoration work on Whychus Creek, where it runs between Creekside Park and Creekside Campground — from the Locust Street bridge to the Highway 20 bridge — should take place in August 2022. This according to Mathias Perle, restoration program manager for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, in his report to the City Parks Advisory Board, who held their March 2 meeting at the creek.

The strategic plan for restoration of the 40-mile-long creek started in 2006 at Lake Billy Chinook, when a collaborative effort was hatched to reintroduce steelhead and Chinook salmon to the once abundant Whychus Creek. In 16 years, the amount of restoration that has occurred seems nothing short of miraculous. For years, the creek ran dry every summer or warmed beyond the cold temperatures required to sustain the fish once native to the waters of the Whychus.

The Deschutes Land Trust (DLT), under the leadership of visionary Brad Chalfant, set about protecting land along the Whychus by working with private landowners to place acreages in the land trust protection. The DLT has worked with the Deschutes River Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council (UDWC), private landowners, and the City of Sisters to rehabilitate and re-meander the creek, restoring conditions necessary for supporting the return of steelhead and Chinook salmon.

As early as 2009, there was talk of full restoration of Whychus Creek from below McKinney Butte to one mile upstream of Sisters. Great progress has been made below and above those two points, including removal of all the old irrigation dams on the creek, the last one taken out in the summer of 2021. Restoration projects have also occurred at Camp Polk Meadow and Rimrock Ranch.

The City of Sisters and the UDWC have been jointly working on plans for restoring the Creekside stretch of Whychus since 2018. Unfortunately, that small portion of the creek has been “loved to death” by locals and visitors. Numerous access points to the creek on both banks have compacted the soil and destroyed the natural riparian areas along the creek. Eddies around the footbridge pilings and downstream, where there is an underwater sewer line, have created a great deal of bank erosion and instability. Plans call for both bank and instream rehabilitation to improve passage for returning fish and saving the creek banks between the park and the campground.

The design was completed and ready to go in 2019 but then summer wildfires stalled any activity in the creek, followed by COVID. Because of the delays, the project was broken into three phases.

Phase 1 entailed moving the Locust Street bridge sewer line off the bridge and burying it under the creek bed, thus eliminating possible damage to the line by debris carried downstream in high water periods. The City was able to secure funds from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) to cover a portion of that project, which is now complete.

Phase 2 involved retrofits to the footbridge across the creek between the park and the campground. The skilled City Public Works staff was able to add “bump outs” on either side of the bridge to allow people to stop on the bridge while others are still able to proceed across. With a change to the approach ramps, incorporating a more gradual grade, the bridge is now ADA accessible. New iron railings were installed by Public Works utility technician Josh Stott, with decorative panels created by Ponderosa Forge and installed by Stott. A grant from OWEB, along with some money left from the grant for the new campground bathroom, facilitated the bridge retrofit.

Phase 3 is the instream and bank restoration, which will include consolidating access points to the creek with installation of a split-rail fence at the top of the banks and well-marked designated access points with stone steps. The riparian areas on either side of the creek will be restored with new planting.

The utility line that crosses in the creek above the Highway 20 bridge acts as a barrier for juvenile fish traveling in the steam. That will be corrected by building up the downstream level of the creek bed to the edge of the sewer line, ensuring easier fish passage.

Other instream work will include the stationary placement of trees with root balls into the banks and out into the creek to provide quiet pools for the fish while reducing erosion of the adjoining banks.

UDWC hopes to provide opportunities for local students to do the planting of the riparian areas. New interpretive signage along the creek will educate the public about the importance of Whychus Creek to our community and how to be good stewards.

Two unexpected situations have impacted the project. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife just reduced the window of time during which any instream work can be done, to July 1-August 15, so UDWC has a small timeframe to get the work completed. They may be able to get a variance if needed.

Also, the engineering firm originally contracted to do the work has since retired. A new request for proposals (RFP) had to go out and a new engineering firm hired. Now the process begins to figure out how much of the planned work can be done with the money currently available from grants previously secured by the UDWC. The work on this stretch of the creek must address two different goals – restoration of the habitat to support fish passage and provision for recreational opportunities.

See related column, “In the pines,” page 7.