A massive water supply plan will benefit fish habitat in Washington state


Last week the Yakama Nation celebrated an event that hasn’t happened in over 100 years. Sockeye salmon hatched in eastern Washington’s Cle Elum Lake returned there to spawn.

It was an important moment in the tribe’s restoration program, which began in 2009, to bring back a salmon run that was 200,000 fish strong before irrigation dams in the Yakima Valley headwaters choked fish out of their nursery lakes in the early 1900s. Steelhead and bull trout have also suffered in the basin, and are federally listed as threatened. But the tribe is now looking forward to the possibility of a self-sustaining run of the Yakima Valley's once-extirpated sockeye.

Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a funding bill that aims to create permanent fish passage on all six dams in the basin. As its name suggests, the $130 million “Jobs, Water, and Fish” bill, contains more than just fish conservation measures—much more.

The bill is the state’s a smolt-sized start to funding a massive initiative, the Yakima Integrated Plan, that addresses long-festering water problems in the heavily plumbed Yakima Basin. Even if climate change were not hurting the Cascade Range snowpack that the basin and its agriculture depends on, dry years still leave irrigators short on water, and fish are all the worse off.

In addition to fish conservation initiatives, the larger plan, which could eventually cost around $5 billion, contains proposals for expanding dams and building a new one, purchasing 70,000 acres of private land as mitigation for land lost to flooding, studying wilderness and wild and scenic river designations, easing water rights transfers in the basin, recharging groundwater, restoring fish habitat and starting an ag water conservation program.

The current plan was written and evaluated using results from a Bureau of Reclamation national climate adaptation program, called WaterSMART, that started in 2009. The Yakima Valley was the first basin studied under the program, and the Yakima Integrated Plan is the first piece of water policy to come out of WaterSMART. (Stay tuned for future coverage of this plan, and how it’s being billed as a climate adaptation strategy, in the upcoming print edition of HCN.)

Part of the plan is to add more water storage to the system as a way to provide more flexibility in the timing and amount of water that gets sent downstream. Increasing storage capacity in the basin is one of the most controversial parts of the plan because expanding reservoir storage at Bumping Lake would flood old growth forest. Yet, storage isn't the only solution proposed in the plan. There’s also significant funding for ecosystem restoration, which wasn’t included in earlier (and more expensive) Yakima storage proposals, such as the now defunct Black Rock Reservoir.

That ecosystem restoration would include putting natural water storage back into the river system, by reconnecting the Yakima River and its floodplain. In the past, the floodplain acted as a natural slow-release reservoir for cold water. During spring runoff season, cold mountain water would spill over the river bank and seep into the ground, where it was later released back into the river during the hotter, drier part of the summer. That process created cold pockets for fish and helped lower the overall water temperature when fish needed it most.

According to Yakama Nation hydrogeologist Tom Ring, one of the first fish habitat actions in the plan is to remove or set back dykes alongside the Yakima River near the city of Yakima and move a wastewater treatment outfall so the water can move freely within the floodplain. The Yakama Nation, Bureau of Reclamation, and Yakima County, have also been buying up Yakima River floodplain property to create space for water to move back onto the land.

“The real goldmine for these juvenile fish are the side channels and spring brooks,” or refuges off the river’s main channel where they can become healthy “before they make that crazy trip out into the ocean,” said Ring. In general, using engineering solutions, like fish screens and fish ladders to help fish coexist with water development, have been an emphasis for the last 30 years. But larger ecosystem functions that always helped fish cope, like interactions between floodplain and river, “have not been restored to the point they need to be to have cold water fish in a hot, dry place” like the Yakima Valley.

According to Ring, one of the best ways to adapt to climate change “is to fix your watersheds and restore those natural storage functions, starting with wet meadows in the high country, and river floodplain interactions, and beaver dams, and all the rest,” said Ring. If all goes according to plan, the Yakima Integrated Plan will help make that happen.

Sarah Jane Keller is an editorial fellow at High Country News.