Watershed council has expanded its impact
Twenty-five years ago, the Crooked River Watershed Council (CRWC) was all about juniper thinnings, a few water developments and stream enhancement projects, and most were hidden from the public eye in the farthest reaches of Crook County.
Then the Council consisted of a paid director and an annual operating budget of $300,000, 80 percent of which went to on-the-ground work.
Today, according to CRWC's director Chris Gannon, the operating budget averages about $1.5 million each year with $190 thousand supporting three FTE employees and other administrative expenses. And as the budget has grown, so too have the projects.
"The last five years, the projects that we've done seem to have a little more public interest," Gannon said. "They're much larger, more expensive, and more complicated."
The CRWC relies on grants and partnerships to get work done on the ground, and along with technical guidance, provides the link between funding sources and project developers — problematic in the budget realm.
Gannon said he likes to have three years of funding ahead at all times. Like a conveyor belt, continual input is needed to keep it moving. It's a struggle, but as a nonprofit, they can't bank money and oftentimes the cash flow doesn't match expenditures.
"Every grant you get extends your ability to work," he said, but "it's very, very tricky to run."
Upland watershed work continues to be a focus area for the council, but on a larger scale.
"We have an estimate of 600,000 acres of juniper in the wrong place," Gannon said. Even though they might treat 10,000 acres annually, this is less than being produced by nature. Consequences include loss of herbaceous plants, soil erosion, stream sedimentation and impacts to fish.
"What's really missing in juniper treatment is getting natural fires back on the landscape at a meaningful interval," he explained. "Not hot, but regular. It's really a long-term maintenance program."
Noxious weed control is also addressed, mostly through the Crooked River Weed Management Area, another local nonprofit.
"Partnerships are how we get more things done than we can do on our own."
Up to 70 percent of their funding comes from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), according to Gannon. One OWEB requirement is a 25 percent funding match from other sources or an in-kind match from landowners, such as equipment or labor, which also provides an ownership connection to a project.
"We try to work the match with those upland landowners as easy as we can for them," he said, "so they're not actually taking cash out of their pockets."
A high-profile job that should wrap up this fall is the Opal Springs fish passage/hydroelectric project in the narrow Crooked River Canyon, a half-mile above Lake Billy Chinook, near Culver. While this mid-1980s dam produces power for its owner, the Deschutes Valley Water District, it is also a significant barrier to migration of salmon and steelhead. A new fish ladder and a higher dam — by 22 inches — will address both needs.
The higher dam, Gannon said, will create more "head" in the pool, which provides a higher energy profile for the hydroelectric turbines, and therefore allows the water district to produce more power. An "attraction flow chute" will also use this added water to attract fish to the ladder during migration.
"(The water district is) getting, for about half of the cost, a really neat, new infrastructure down there that will probably last 100 years," he said.
Approximately $2.5 million passed through the council's hands for this multi-year, $10 million project, for both design and implementation.
Closer to home is the City of Prineville's Crooked River Wetlands Project, two miles from US 126 and along the O'Neil Highway, which focused on the construction of 15 wetland cells to naturally clean treated sewage effluent. This provided an opportunity for the CRWC to add a flood plain habitat project along the Crooked River to the mix.
"To build the wetland cells and to have them gravity feed, you actually had to build up the ground," explained Gannon. This complemented the flood plain project since earth needed to be moved from near the river which created a wider, and more open main channel. Side channels were also built to allow the river to expand at high flows.
An unexpected high flow the first year allowed the river to expand across the new floodplain and to modify the "engineered" channels as it saw fit. Today they're wider, shallower, and "adjusted."
"Nature's always going to do that to our projects, and we have to make space for that," Gannon said. "They're typically more stable when adjusted by nature."
The council funded $1.2 million of this project from various sources, including OWEB and the Pelton Fund, a mitigation fund to offset Deshutes River hydroelectric projects. It also contributed expertise.
"It was a great project," Gannon effused. "We love the green infrastructure, as people describe it, and the city was excellent to work with, because they didn't have to do that side channel work."
Eric Klann, Prineville's city engineer and public works director, shared similar thoughts.
"A significant portion of the grants we received for the Wetlands came through the Watershed Council," he said. "They helped us pretty significantly with the design, and then the funding of the wetland project, so they were engaged real early on. They're just wonderful, and they're fantastic at getting projects done."
To keep the conveyor belt moving, Gannon is eyeing a project encompassing the Crooked River Valley from the Wetlands to near Lone Pine.
"Years ago, before dams, the river would flood and meander, and cottonwood could establish in certain areas. There's no way we can get all the way back to that, but to the degree we can add some of those elements back in to the lower valley, that would be fantastic."
Gannon said he might sell this to landowners by highlighting how this would increase soil saturation and decrease irrigation needs.
"We always have to think about how we can do the horse trade thing. How can we help the landowner and still achieve our goals."
Funding would come from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as part of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The expected $7 million and its five-year funding window would keep the council going for awhile.
"We're in as good a spot as we ever have been as a council."
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