Restoring fish and wildlife habitat on the Ochoco Preserve in Crook County

The Central Oregonian reports on the Land Trust's Ochoco Preserve Project in Prineville.
By Ramona McCallister
Central Oregonian


Bulldozers, backhoes and water trucks are visible from Madras Highway, just east of Ochoco Creek.

Residents have been curious what is taking place less than two miles out on the highway, just off of the fields that were recently farmland. A recent tour shed light on the project, where the Ochoco Preserve, recently purchased by Deschutes Land Trust, encompasses 185 acres one mile north of Prineville on Madras Highway.

The land includes one mile of the Crooked River, a half-mile of McKay Creek, and a half-mile of Ochoco Creek and will be adjacent to the Crooked River Wetlands Complex (across the river) when the project is completed. Their efforts will center around returning many of the historic natural processes that the Crooked River, Ochoco Creek and McKay Creek once had by providing space to meander, adding side channels and diversifying habitat to improve conditions for fish and wildlife. It also means creating floodplains and wetlands so these waterways can store and then release cooler water back into the system.

The $1 million grant to the Deschutes Land Trust was funded by Portland General Electric (PGE) and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, co-owners of the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric project on the Deschutes River. The grant was awarded through a special round of funding from the Pelton Round Butte Fund. The Land Trust plans to use this funding for the first phase of the major restoration at Ochoco Preserve. The project includes floodplain restoration, development of side-channel and wetland habitat and construction of an acclimation pond for juvenile fish.

"The Land Trust is so grateful for this funding from the Pelton Round Butte Fund," said Rika Ayotte, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust. "It helps continue our long-term partnership with PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to conserve and restore habitat for salmon and steelhead throughout Central Oregon."

Since 2010, PGE and the Tribes have been advancing an ambitious, long-term effort to restore sustainable populations of salmon and steelhead to the Deschutes Basin, including the Crooked and Metolius rivers.

She added, "We're finding that more returning adult fish are choosing to travel up the Crooked River compared to the other tributaries upstream of Lake Billy Chinook, so it's critical for these fish to have high-quality habitat when they arrive."

"Supporting projects in the Crooked River is one of the best ways we can improve conditions for both juvenile and adult fish," said Megan Hill, PGE's natural resources manager and director of the Pelton Round Butte salmon reintroduction program.

With this swath of land in an area that utilizes irrigation from the Ochoco Creek and McKay Creek, the question of its impact to irrigation and irrigation rights arose during the public comment period.

During this time, Ochoco Irrigation District (OID) submitted concerns of plans of rechanneling Ochoco Creek and McKay Creek and whether 100-year events, like the one that occurred in 1998, would have potential to flood neighboring farmland. OID also noted that water channels through both creeks and is diverted into the Crooked River.

"We wanted to make sure that the water would still be able to get through their wetland and be able to make it downstream, and we were assured that would happen, and we were assured that the design considered 100-year flood events — and there would be localized flooding, but it would not impact other neighboring areas," commented OID Manager Bruce Scanlon.

He went on to say, "We were assured that our issues and concerns were acknowledged, but they had been built into the design of the plan itself for their project, and the concerns that we had should not materialize."

Scanlon added that the 185 acres has water rights associated with it.

"We are working with the Land Trust to remove that water right, and our intention is to move that elsewhere in the district and still maintain irrigated agricultural use of that water right."

He noted that some of the rights have already been removed and placed elsewhere in the district, and they are negotiating an agreement with the Land Trust for the remainder.

On an early morning tour, Ayotte pointed out where the McKay Creek comes across the Madras Highway to the recently acquired property.

"McKay Creek right now comes basically right across the highway onto the property and then pretty much is a straight shot right down to the Crooked (River)," she noted of the creek.

Ayotte said that historically, it meandered through the flood plain, and when it was farmed, it was easier to put it in a straight alignment to irrigate out of it and to mitigate flood control.

"The thinking back then is you can also do better flood control with a straight stream, but that has actually proven over time to not be really the case. But you can berm it easier."

She pointed out that phase one would include changing the channel and meandering McKay Creek where it comes across the highway and to the Crooked River. Construction crews will realign the creek to its historic floodplain and add more side channels, wetlands and natural structures to improve habitat for fish and wildlife. The Land Trust will also build an acclimation pond that will eventually hold juvenile spring Chinook and summer steelhead instream prior to release. Part of the restoration process will also include identifying locations for future trails and education sites so the Land Trust can share the preserve with the community.

Ayotte added that the property is very wet, as she pointed to the vegetation that follows the natural springs on the property. She said the convergence of the two streams (McKay Creek and Ochoco Creek) are the only place the Crooked River gets recharged with fresh water below the dam. When the project completes in approximately five years, in addition to the aquatic restoration, visitors will be able to access the property via a bridge from the Crooked River Wetlands Complex.

"Walk, hike, bike through the property, and then connect if you wanted to with a forthcoming paved path that ODOT is putting in all the way along the highway into town," she explained.

Ayotte concluded that a big emphasis for the project is salmon and steelhead reintroduction and a partnership with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as more than one dozen partners who came together to create a cohesive plan, which included City of Prineville, Crooked River Watershed Counsil, ODFW and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

"They have been monitoring and doing fish surveys on this property for many, many years, and when the property came up for sale, it was ODFW who really encouraged the Land Trust to take a close look at it," she said of ODFW's involvement with the project.