This is maybe the best story I know.
It’s an antidote to cynicism, a case study in the ways in which vision, patience and mutual respect can create outcomes that benefit everybody involved — and enhance the health and beauty of this sweet old world. This story originally appeared in The Nugget’s publication Celebrate. Because if anything is worthy of celebration it is the restoration of waters.
Something amazing happened on Whychus Creek in Sisters, Oregon, over the past two decades.
A stream that once ran dry in the summer now flows bold and strong, all year round, even in times of drought. And this was done without harming farmers who depend on its waters for irrigation. In fact, they are getting more water. And habitat for fish and wildlife is better than it has been since perhaps the early 1960s.
Diversion dams have been removed and those who diverted the water have benefited from improved, more efficient irrigation systems. Water from the creek is generating electrical power that goes into the local system.
This kind of win-win-win outcome doesn’t just happen. It required bringing together a host of government agencies, non-profits, and private citizens. The agencies, organizations and individuals who all came to the table to restore Whychus Creek might ordinarily be expected to be at odds. But through many years of hammering out agreements that met a variety of needs, everyone could step away from the table with something they wanted — more water in the creek; more water on farms; habitat restoration and power generation.
The restoration of Whychus Creek — which is ongoing today — is a triumph of patient collaboration, and a model for similar projects across an often-divided nation. And it grew out of dry and rocky soil.
Whychus Creek — then known as Squaw Creek — had been over-appropriated in terms of water rights since 1895. That meant that in the height of irrigation season, the creekbed was dry through Sisters. In the reach south of town, the creek had been straightened and channelized to prevent flooding, and pushed well east of where it had once meandered through a meadow. The whole riparian area was in sad shape, battered by the elements and by rough use by humans. It seemed that nobody really cared.
“Basically, people kind of wrote off Whychus Creek,” said Mike Riehle, U.S. Forest Service Fish Biologist, who has been a key person in restoration efforts since the 1990s.
Mathias Perle, restoration project manager with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, recalled that farmers and ranchers in the area didn’t want to see water in the creek in summertime.
“When they saw water in town, they’d yell at (the irrigation district manager) that it was being wasted and he wasn’t doing his job,” he said.
The outlook began to shift in the late 1980s and early ’90s, with a convergence of economic, legislative and cultural changes. A watershed analysis by the Forest Service demonstrated that the creek was in rough shape — but it also offered a window on a lush past.
Maret Pajutee led the analysis, which included extensive interviews with the children of Sisters Country pioneer homesteaders.
“We heard all these stories about salmon in Whychus, and bull trout,” said Maret Pajutee.
At the same time, the lifeway of Central Oregon was changing, with extractive industries like logging fading and tourism and recreation industries that focused on quality of life moving to the fore. Values shifted.
“You have to keep in mind that this region was changing,” said Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust. “That had a subtle but really profound impact.”
Out of that economic and cultural shift in the early ’90s, a variety of organizations were founded to preserve and restore watersheds and other valuable landscapes in Central Oregon. In 2005, the Deschutes Partnership was formed bringing together the Deschutes Land Trust, the Deschutes River Conservancy, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and the Crooked River Watershed Council to develop a strategic, integrated restoration program.
Organizations worked with landowners one at a time, sometimes for years, to create preserves along the creek that allowed for the protection and large-scale restoration of habitat and natural stream flows.
“We’ve gone slowly and we work with landowners on their own terms,” Chalfant said.
The work does not rely on appeals to altruism — there are pragmatic incentives. Three Sisters Irrigation District manager Marc Thalacker saw that the district could either change voluntarily — with the assistance of grant money — or someday be forced to change its practices through regulatory action. He pushed hard for fish screening and the piping of the district’s canals. The piping of miles of Three Sisters Irrigation District canals was not without controversy. Many people were reluctant to see open canals that had become defacto streams — with the attendant wildlife and aesthetic benefits — decommissioned. There were some clashes that bore out the truth of the old saw that “whiskey’s for drinking; water is for fighting over.”
But piping proved to be the right thing to do — for everybody.
As Riehle noted, the modernization project created “a piped, pressurized system that is the envy of just about any irrigation district in Oregon.”
The removal of a concrete dam serving Pine Meadow Ranch was a key element in the restoration of the creek — and serves as an example of the patient, win-win approach that has made the miracle on Whychus Creek possible. Mathias Perle approached rancher Dorro Sokol and her daughter Cris Converse — carefully.
“It took me a year and a half to have coffee with them,” Perle recalled. “Dam removal was never on the table. I knew if we led with that, we’d get the door slammed.”
Converse recalled that even when talks began, it took some doing to build Sokol’s trust.
“She wasn’t closed to it, but she was really fearful about losing water rights or losing the ability to irrigate,” Converse recalled.
Patient discussions over several years, with the focus always kept on mutual benefit, ended up with Pine Meadow Ranch putting water back in the creek while getting a better irrigation system out of the deal. The dam was removed. And Converse so valued the experience that she has joined the board of directors of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.
For Converse, the importance of the Whychus Creek story goes well beyond the creek itself — it’s a model for how big things can be accomplished in a nation that is so often divided and contentious in its dealings.
“All of these people were working together from different walks of life,” she said. “I wanted to be part of something where everybody was working together and that was the most important thing. I wanted more of that collaborative experience.”
What has happened on Whychus is rippling out across Oregon.
“We’ve used the Whychus model far and wide,” said Kate Fitzpatrick, Deschutes River Conservancy program director.
A project on a Crooked River tributary, McKay Creek, is modeled directly on the Whychus work. And that model comes down to a simple philosophy, Fitzpatrick says:
“Really take the time to do it right.”
Everyone who hikes along the Whychus Creek Trail, or contemplates the watershed from the Whychus Overlook, takes an interprestive hike in the Camp Polk Meadow Preserve or enjoys a picnic beside the flowing stream in Creekside Park in Sisters can recognize that there’s a fine lesson to be found in the story of Whychus Creek:
Sometimes, with patience, persistence and vision, everybody gets to celebrate a win.
All of those involved with more than two decades of effort to restore Whychus Creek recognize that education is key to the long-term success of the work. Indeed, many of them cite an educational event as a key moment in the community’s attitude toward the creek that — sort of — ran through it.
In 1998, Forest Service biologist Maret Pajutee organized a History Day event where “old-timers” shared memories of a creek that was very different from the one that ran dry through town. Jess Edgington shared stories about spearing a steelhead in the creek when he was a kid.
As they can do, stories shifted perceptions. Forest Service fish biologist Mike Riehle credits the history event with laying the foundation of community support
“I think part of it was that we started celebrating the history of Sisters and how cool it was,” Pajutee said.
The organizations that have spearheaded Whychus restoration have instilled in a couple of generations of Central Oregon students a sense of kinship and ownership with the creek.
“That was basically the start of changing the image of Whychus Creek in the community,” he said. “When it came down to doing something dramatic, we had widespread community support.”
Upper Deschutes Watershed Council education coordinator Kolleen Miller says this kind of work is a vital investment in the future.
“All of these restoration projects can be undone in a generation if we don’t educate future generations about stewardship,” she said.
Class after class has taken field trips to preserves along the creek, where they have engaged in hands-on restoration work that ties in to their classroom learning about science. They also engage with their experience of the creek through writing, art and music.
Amanda Edgerton, stewardship director with the Deschutes Land Trust, noted that it is a beautiful thing to see young adults return to spots on the creek where they planted willows when they were in the fourth grade — and see them towering to shade a creek that is now a healthy, thriving habitat for fish and other wildlife.
“We have to get the kids out there,” said Cris Converse, board member with the upper Deschutes Watershed Council. ‘We’ve got to get them so they know it and love it.”
Marisa Hossick, communications director with Deschutes River conservancy saluted “the longevity of these people who have devoted a significant portion of their lives on this work.”
As habitat is restored and native fish return to their home waters, those pioneers who led an extraordinary decades-long effort can pass the torch to a new generation of stewards — children and young adults who can feel in their bones the words of fisherman and writer Norman Maclean:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”