The Deschutes River in central Oregon drains the snowmelt off the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains. Its unlikely route flows north, cutting through volcanic basalt to the Columbia River where historic populations of Steelhead, Chinook, Redbands, and Sockeye supported native communities for thousands of years. In the modern era, the impacts of civilization have dramatically reshaped the entire Deschutes watershed, leaving two very different fisheries behind: a very productive tailwater below Round Butte Dam, and a deteriorated watershed above. Erosion, water-use, and disconnected habitat are a few among many challenges to confront. Trout Unlimited's Upper Deschutes Home River Initiative (HRI), led by project manager Darek Staab, is working to meet these challenges head-on. Accordingly, public and private partnerships coupled with dedicated volunteers have committed to returning the one hundred&fifty miles above Lake Billy Chinook back to a version of its old-self.
South of the Round Butte Dam and Lake Billy Chinook is the junction of the Metolius, Crooked, and Upper Deschutes rivers. The historic and present value of the upper basin is deeply rooted in its importance as a fishery. While the remnants of the past still exist in the diverse species that are represented, there is the reality that trout and salmon of the Upper Deschutes basin are struggling to exist even with the support of hatcheries. Trout Unlimited believes that with restored habitat and water flows, the once significant trout and salmon runs will rebound.
Just as Portland relies upon the power generated by the Round Butte Dam, and ranchers and farmers depend on its water for crops and livestock, local communities are supported by the health of this river and its fish for their recreation-driven economies. The most important challenge to meet is striking a utilitarian balance in order to cater to the interests and preserve the viability of all parties. The restoration of this great river system has already seen gains toward balance as Darek and TU start their third year of work on the Upper Deschutes watershed.
Stewardship & Education
Combining Darek Staab's background in Watershed Based Service Learning education with Trout Unlimited's volunteer structure is proving to be the driving force behind the success of this project. In order to meet the priorities and build a stewardship network with his partners, Darek established an education initiative known as the Deschutes Restoration Outreach Program (DROP). Accordingly, DROP functions as a network that educates and engages a community of local TU volunteers, college students, and interested adults. The result is skilled and passionate stewards who become equipped to work toward the conservation goals of the Upper Deschutes.
"We target informed and active adults who understand restoration and how a river works and then link them with restoration projects. These adults then turn around and work with kids and students, and end up leading projects."
Darek's experience with the Skagit River Stewards and their work in the North Cascades National Park provided the model for a starting point. "In just one year, DROP engaged over 500 youth and volunteers, including 50 committed Deschutes Basin Stewards. The program framework dovetails perfectly with the on-the-ground restoration projects and specific advocacy campaigns – both of which encourage more voices and actions for fish and wildlife."
Erosion & Sediment: Destructive land use practices and increased recreation have throughout time put a massive strain on the banks of the Upper Deschutes basin. This, in turn, causes increased sedimentation, which reduces water quality and natural reproduction of sensitive native coldwater species. Priority projects, such as the Metolius River Trail Restoration, partners TU with the Deschutes National Forest and local organizations to reconstruct and monitor critical riparian habitat along 15 miles of the Metolius River. This reach provides the vast majority of spawning grounds and access for five species of native salmonids. The Metolius River system is an ecological stronghold for native Oregon fish species, including threatened Bull trout, Redband trout, Kokanee, and (coming soon) reintroduced Chinook and Sockeye salmon runs.
Water Use: The arid eastern Oregon landscape faces the same fundamental challenge posed throughout our western states – water use. With a growing population and the demands of communities and agriculture, the Upper Deschutes basin has been increasingly tapped to meet these demands. TU is working to create a balance that meets the needs of all parties that at the same time can maintain a healthy river system.
Connectivity: Improving the natural reproduction of fish in the Upper Deschutes River basin depends on reconnecting fractured habitat. By working with a broad range of partners, TU aims to increase flows and repair or replace culverts so that native fish can reach spawning grounds and other critical habitat.