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Riparian Environment – Description and History

The Little Deschutes River meanders for two miles through Vandevert Ranch.  See the Wetlands Map and the description of the Course of the Little Deschutes in the appendices.  Sometimes as a lake and sometimes as a river, the waters of the Little Deschutes have been flowing through this same valley for about a million years.  A profusion of old river channels is visible on aerial photos and on Google Earth.  As recent examples, two oxbows shown in a 1979 aerial photo have since been cut off by the river. 

Claude Vandevert, who was born in 1923 and grew up on the ranch, reports, “The closest thing Dad did to changing the river channel was in the early 1930's.  He put a dam across the river at the north end of the ranch just before the river turns east toward the schoolhouse.  His intent was to flood the meadows following the high water season and improve the hay crop.  He managed to raise the water level at the house about 18 inches and it looked like it was going to work, but the pressure was too great and the water washed out around the cribbing and he lost all his work."  (There are no traces of this dam today.)  

Claude further reports, “There was in a deep bend in the river about half way between the house and the South end of the ranch.  The river turned East there then came back West leaving a neck of land between the two about 100 feet wide when I was small.  I had been away from that part of the ranch for several years after I grew up, but when I saw what had happened in the intervening years, I was shocked.  There was only about six or eight feet across that neck.  I suggested Dad get a lot of rip-rap placed against the two banks to stop the erosion. But he felt that it would be too costly and did nothing.  The last time I saw it, the river had broken through and formed an island with 3 to 5 acres in it, and of course the start of another slough.”  (The 1979 aerial photo shows the river still flowing in what is now the extensive slough south of the teepee.)

The Vandevert family’s bridges and the current bridge are not judged to have had a substantial impact on the environment, although Claude's sister Grace notes, "What I'm always amazed at is how the river has cut the bank back so much just across the river from the "guest house" where our garden use to be.  There would be no garden there now.  Couldn't even re-build the "Big Bridge" as it was before - - it would have to be moved."  The developer compensated for the wetlands that the current bridge displaced by building the pond (outside the riparian area).

The wetlands and floodplain constitute the wildest and most “natural” part of the ranch.  They are well on the road to recovery from eighty years of cattle grazing (from 1892 to the 1970’s) which collapsed some banks into the river and limited the growth of willows.  Under the supervision of the ranch foreman, two riparian planting projects were completed in 2004.  A Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP - managed by USDA) planted 19,100 seedlings in 80 acres of the 110 acre riparian zone.  An additional 38 acres, including land outside the riparian zone east of the barn and adjacent to Lot 15, were planted under a contract with the Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) in exchange for carbon sequestration credits.  A total of 33,215 plants (including cottonwoods, red osier dogwood, and 10,000 ponderosa pines) were acquired and installed at no cost to the Ranch.  Unfortunately almost all of the plants, except the ponderosas, were killed by gophers or by soil conditions inhospitable to the plants selected.  The ponderosas that are doing the best are a little above the flood plain.  The ones in the floodplain are more vulnerable to varmints (e.g gophers) and to frost.  After 2-3 years the ponderosas in the frost pockets can withstand the frost.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, states must set water quality standards, monitor rivers and lakes, and report to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on a “303(d)” list, any water bodies that do not meet the standards.  The Little Deschutes is not listed for any chemical or biological pollutants but is listed from 50 to 73 miles above the ranch for high water temperature.  Higher water temperatures cause the level of dissolved oxygen in the water to be low and the river is listed for low dissolved oxygen from its mouth up to well above the ranch. Dissolved oxygen is essential for the survival of fish, all other water animals, and zooplankton.  Oxygen also improves the odor, clarity, and taste of water.  Nitrate levels are not currently a problem but are a long term concern (see Hydrology). 

Under two grants administered by the Oregon Water Enhancement Board, the ranch has done extensive work to stabilize the river banks and improve fish habitat.  (See report in the appendices)  The work consisted of anchoring live pine trees, harvested from the ranch, horizontally along the banks of the river at or below water level (See photo at right taken when the water level was low.  The water is flowing toward the camera).  The trees prevent erosion and help to direct water toward the center of the river.  Deeper, narrower, and faster currents clear silt from between the small stones on the river floor, creating a better environment for spawning and for the small aquatic animals that are food for fish.

The best trees are short, bushy, and dense because they are easiest to hold in place.  The trees are placed with their tops upstream and are cabled to one or two anchors with an arrowhead point and a six foot drive rod.  The anchors are driven into the bottom of the stream with a sixty pound air hammer.  Sometimes the anchors will not hold if the bottom is particularly muddy.  The tops of the trees are far enough off the bank to deflect the water toward the center of the stream but not so far out that the flow can get behind them. 

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