Diversion dam near Sisters set for removal

Restoration to follow on Whychus Creek

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

It took five years of discussions, most done around a kitchen table at Pine Meadow Ranch, but the plan to remove a diversion dam on Whychus Creek south of Sisters is now complete.

“We just kept having to look for a solution that will work for everyone, and I think that is what we have come up with,” said Cris Converse, vice president at the family-owned-and-run ranch.

The decades-old dam will come out this year and be replaced by an electric pump pulling water directly from the creek as it crosses the ranch, which Dorro Sokol, Converse’s now 87-year-old mother, bought in 1971. The change at the Pine Meadow Ranch, of which Sokol is still president, will result in the ranch having a more efficient irrigation system, more water staying in Whychus Creek and a fish barrier being removed.

“It is what made the most sense for all the players involved,” said 61-year-old Converse.

Along with the ranch, those players are the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, a Bend-based watershed restoration group; the Deschutes River Conservancy, a Bend-based nonprofit focused on restoring streamflows to the Deschutes River and its tributaries; and the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land where the dam is located.

The dam doesn’t have an official name, but is known as the Pine Meadow Ranch diversion dam or the Sokol Diversion. The dam is the last of about a half dozen concrete dams to be removed from the Whychus Creek system in recent years, said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

Altogether, removing the dam, putting in the pump and making irrigation system changes at the ranch, adjusting water rights and restoring the creek will cost about $2 million, Houston said.

Currently, money from the Pelton-Round Butte Mitigation Fund and the U.S. Forest Service are in place to cover $1.2 million of the cost.

The remaining $800,000 may be covered by a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. Houston said the grant application is in, and the board should announce whether the project received it by March.

“It’s a really nicely balanced, win-win type of situation,” Houston said. “It’s a win for the creek, and it’s a win for the fish, and it’s a win for the ranch.”

The only negative Converse sees is having to fill in the3-acre pond, which is part of the current diversion system. The pond has long been a popular spot for swimming and fishing. She said the pond contains 12-inch trout. Sometimes Converse takes turns in the pond on a stand-up paddleboard. She said she’ll miss the pond.

Dam removal is planned for this summer, and a change in the creek could make it easier. Last year, a strong rainstorm caused the creek to swell and change course and flow around the dam. If the dam was going to stay in place and the current diversion continue, the ranch would push the creek back into its old channel. Instead, they’ll let it be and remove the dam with little or no water around it.

While the water right for the ranch goes back to the mid-1880s, the dam itself was built in the late 1980s, Converse said. She said her late, older brother, Doug Sokol, poured about 120 cubic yards of concrete to make the dam, which replaced a log diversion dam.

“My brother didn’t mess around,” she said. “When he built something, he built it to last.”

At about 6-feet tall, the dam blocked fish from swimming to the upper reaches of Whychus Creek — before the creek changed course. Removing the dam will ensure fish may migrate upstream of the dam location. The Forest Service has designated much of the creek upstream of the dam as Wild and Scenic, giving it similar protections to a designated Wilderness Area.

“It really opens up the most important parts of Whychus Creek for salmon and steelhead as they come back to spawn,” Houston said.

The ocean-going fish are returning to the Deschutes River system above the Pelton Round Butte dam complex, a result of the submerged fish tower in Lake Billy Chinook that was completed in 2009 by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The power company and the tribes co-own Round Butte Dam, which creates the lake, and the other dams in the complex. Whychus Creek, which flows through Sisters, feeds into to the Deschutes River upstream of the lake.

Along with eliminating a barrier for the fish, removing the dam will result in more water staying in Whychus Creek, said Tod Heisler, executive director for the Deschutes River Conservancy. By the Pine Meadow Ranch switching from the diversion dam to a pump, an extra 1 cubic foot of water per second will stay in Whychus Creek. The water is currently lost to seepage in the mile-long ditch leading from the dam to a pond on the ranch.

“Every cfs that goes (into the creek) is significant,” he said, using the abbreviation for cubic foot per second.

In the stretch of the creek where the dam is located, the group has a target of 20 cfs and is close to meeting the goal. Houston said the ranch’s total water right is for 3 cfs from Whychus. Once the dam is out, the ranch will be down to taking 2cfs from the creek.

—Reporter: 541-617-7812; ddarling@bendbulletin.com.