Science & Environment

Federal government sends $4M to restore Central Oregon’s Crooked River

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
Nov. 29, 2023 11:32 p.m.

A federal agency is directing more than $4 million to Central Oregon nonprofits for water conservation projects on the Crooked River near Prineville.

The projects are aimed at helping salmon and steelhead recover in this reach of the Deschutes River Basin, where agriculture dominates the landscape, pollution degrades the water and dams reroute natural flows, all to the detriment of native fish.

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Some $3 million authorized through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will go to restoring wetlands at Ochoco Preserve, where two creeks confluence with the Crooked River. The Deschutes Land Trust bought the property with help from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in 2017, after generations of previous owners had straightened the meander of creeks and filled in wetlands to make the land farmable.

“Now, we have to undo all of that work and it really takes a small army to make it happen,” said Rika Ayotte, executive director for Deschutes Land Trust.

Before and after photos provided by her organization show how an earlier restoration project has transformed part of the 185-acre property.

A Feb. 4, 2022 view of Ochoco Preserve, former farmland in Crook County acquired by the Deschutes Land Trust, before work began on Phase 1 of a wetland restoration project.

A Feb. 4, 2022 view of Ochoco Preserve, former farmland in Crook County acquired by the Deschutes Land Trust, before work began on Phase 1 of a wetland restoration project.

Deschutes Land Trust / Courtesy of Deschutes Land Trust

A June 8, 2023 view of Ochoco Preserve in Crook County, after Phase 1 of a project to restore wetlands on part of the property.

A June 8, 2023 view of Ochoco Preserve in Crook County, after Phase 1 of a project to restore wetlands on part of the property.

Deschutes Land Trust / Courtesy of Deschutes Land Trust

“You’ll see downstream benefits from the restoration, including improvements in water temperature, and water quality,” she said.

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Water that’s too warm and polluted to support fish has long been an issue with the Crooked River watershed, which covers roughly three million acres.

“It’s close to half of the entire Deschutes Basin,” said Chris Gannon, executive director of Crooked River Watershed Council.

That nonprofit will receive $1.4 million to recreate wetlands and restore streambanks on two private properties, the Silva Ranch and the King Ranch, where 19 river miles wind through working ranch and farmlands.

“I see them as springboard projects,” Gannon said, “because there’s just so much more work to do.”

Related: Indigenous farmer seeks solutions in drought-plagued Central Oregon

His organization focuses on helping private landowners pay for conservation projects while continuing to use the land for farming. Gannon said it could take 10 to 15 years to realize results from the funding awarded this year.

“It took a long, long time to get to the situation we’re in, and you just can’t unwind these things in a couple of years,” Gannon said.

This week, Oregon’s Democratic federal senators cheered the awards from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“Our waterways and fish are the lifeblood of the Northwest,” Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a press release.

The Central Oregon funding is part of a $51 million overall investment for 30 new environmental water projects in 11 Western states, the release states.

Heavy machinery drops logs in to McKay Creek at Ochoco Preserve on Aug. 1, 2022, during the first phase of a fish habitat restoration project.  The property will eventually be open to the public with hiking and biking trails, according to the Deschutes Land Trust.

Heavy machinery drops logs in to McKay Creek at Ochoco Preserve on Aug. 1, 2022, during the first phase of a fish habitat restoration project. The property will eventually be open to the public with hiking and biking trails, according to the Deschutes Land Trust.

Deschutes Land Trust / Courtesy of Deschutes Land Trust

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