SISTERS — An internationally regarded expert in rivers and how they influence the environment around them is lending his expertise to one of Central Oregon’s largest restoration projects.
Colin Thorne, a professor of physical geography with the University of Nottingham in England, has spent nearly two weeks studying Whychus Creek alongside 13 recent graduates from the university.
Thorne has monitored rivers across the world. However, he described the work happening in Central Oregon to restore Whychus Creek to the way it looked before European-Americans settled in the region as “cutting-edge,” and suggested it could help pave the way for more river restoration efforts in Oregon and beyond.
“People these days love models of rivers,” Thorne said. “The only true model is the river. And here, we’ve had a chance to observe, measure, understand.”
For Thorne and his students, the work provides an opportunity to study innovative work in an unfamiliar environment. And for the local nonprofits who have spearheaded restoration efforts of the river, having a well-regarded researcher evaluate the project not only validates the work being done, but it also helps draw additional scientists to the project going forward.
“When someone like Dr. Thorne says ‘I want to come look at your project,’ that’s outstanding,” said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.
Restoration work on Whychus Creek began as early as the 1990s, long before the project received any international attention. Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust, said the Deschutes River tributary was once a haven of biodiversity in an arid climate.
However, years of cattle-grazing, over-aggressive fire suppression and other early land-use efforts created a creek that was less viable for salmon, steelhead and redband trout, along with other animals and organisms living on or near the river.
“The awareness of today is different from the awareness and priorities of yesterday,” Chalfant said.
Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, said the creek, which once flowed through a mix of different channels, was condensed to a single path in areas, speeding up the flow of water and reducing habitat diversity for fish in the area. A goal of the project was bringing back multiple channels with a mix of habitat types.
“It’s really about just building a big mosaic,” Houston said. “The more complex, the better.”
The two nonprofits, along with the U.S. Forest Service, began restoring the area in 2016. Houston said workers filled in the existing, singular channel with dirt and plant material, allowing the creek to flow into a collection of previously unused channels. Downed trees from forest thinning efforts were placed strategically in the river to give the system more complexity, and riparian vegetation was planted along the banks.
Thorne was introduced to the project after writing a paper about multi-channel rivers, which reminded local researchers of the work being done at Whychus Creek.
The 13 students, several of whom hail from China and Ukraine, have worked on a variety of tasks since arriving in Central Oregon last week. Thorne said the students have inspected wetlands in the area, examined terrain and topography along the river and completed a study of local vegetation.
On Thursday, the students measured slime on the rocks and plankton living in the river, which may be leading indicators of river recovery, and will compare it to samples from other sections of Whychus Creek.
“Those two things are pretty close to the bottom of the food chain, but if you don’t have them, you’re not going to get any bald eagles,” Thorne said.
Thorne said the findings will be presented at the River Restoration Northwest conference in 2019.
Moreover, the projects will help the students, many of whom are entering graduate programs for river restoration and similar programs, find work in the future.
“The opportunity to learn four new skill-sets in two weeks, that are going to be highly applicable in their careers going forward, is fantastic,” he said.
Chalfant said having an internationally known professor could prompt more local institutions, like Oregon State University-Cascades, to get more involved in river restoration. He said having Thorne onsite has helped local researchers connect with about half a dozen other scientists in the field.
“We’ve got to develop that local, on-the-ground expertise,” Chalfant said. “This is the first step.”
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