SISTERS — Nestled in the shadow of Black Butte, just a mile from the containment lines of the Milli Fire, lies Glaze Meadow, a natural grassland bracketed by ponderosa pines with man-made ponds near the edge.
The ponds are dry now, but the U.S. Forest Service is working to return water to the meadow by the end of the fall.
On Thursday, an excavator began piling up dirt and knocking down small pine trees about a mile from the site, the first phase of a restoration project expected to last through October.
Nate Dachtler, fisheries biologist for the Deschutes National Forest, Sisters Ranger District, said the excavator dug up about 15,000 cubic feet of material. It will be used to create a natural barrier that will slow water flows through the meadow, keeping the area wet for a longer period of time.
Dachtler said the project is designed to restore the meadow to its natural function as wetland, and provide a lifeline for fish passage and water flow to nearby Indian Ford Creek, a tributary of Whychus Creek.
“Our thought is, if it stores water longer, you’ll get more water that will be delivered later in the year to Indian Ford Creek,” Dachtler said.
The project, about six miles north of Sisters, is the final phase of the larger Indian Ford Creek Restoration Project, which began in 2014 with help from the national nonprofit Trout Unlimited. So far, the project has involved removing a fish passage at a small irrigation dam and thinning ponderosa pines in the area to promote aspen growth.
The goal, according to Darek Staab, Upper Deschutes project manager for Trout Unlimited, is to create a network of clean, cold water in the Indian Ford Creek and surrounding waterways to help redband trout and other fish species thrive. Improving the hydrology through Glaze Meadow, which connects to the creek, is the final step.
“The hope is that there would be enough clean water, enough habitat to give them the option,” Staab said Thursday.
Before Black Butte Ranch was built in 1970s, water flowed through the approximately 120-acre wetland throughout the year, providing habitat for sandhill cranes and other birds in the region. Dachtler said he’s seen a surveyor’s map from the 19th century that showed a full-fledged pond at the northern edge of the wetland.
“We know, historically, that it had more water for longer,” he said.
Today, however, the meadow holds water only intermittently. In the 1970s, Black Butte Ranch excavated four ponds to divert the water from the resort. Along with several irrigation ditches built around the turn of the 20th century to dry the meadow so cattle could graze it, the lakes ensure that water drains quickly from the meadow. This year, the meadow held water deep into the summer, but Dachtler said it sometimes holds water only a few weeks while the snowpack melts.
“Right now, it just goes from one pond, to the next, to the next, and out the outlet,” Dachtler said.
According to the project design report, less than 50 percent of the meadow is wet seasonally. With the meadow dry for most of the year, new-growth ponderosa pines from the surrounding forest have begun to encroach on the meadow, changing the riparian habitat.
While the Forest Service considered completely filling the ditches and channels, it ultimately settled on removing piping between the ponds and using dirt and debris from the forest to fill in the drainage, forcing water to drain more slowly and spill into the surrounding meadow, which will re-establish a wetland habitat and potentially provide additional fish passage. Dachtler said Indian Ford Creek contains crawfish, mussels and other species in addition to ponder trout.
“It has quite a bit of diversity for a little stream in this area,” he said.
Dachtler added that the Forest Service expects to have the project done by October, though it will depend a bit on the weather. If the region has a wet autumn, the project could extend into November, or even resume next spring.
Trout Unlimited applied for several grants, including one from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, to offset the $110,000 cost of the project.
“It’s just a really important local stream system,” Staab said.
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