To save Washington's Yakima Basin fish, just add water

A drought plan in one of the West’s most forward-thinking watersheds reconciles salmon and agriculture.


Editor's note: This story touched on just one aspect of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. The strong response to this story makes evident the degree to which the compromise still remains a controversial topic in the community. We are reposting the story now, following conversations with the writer, and we're posting lengthy comments from concerned parties, which you can read below. High Country News remains dedicated to strict journalistic integrity in its stories and will continue to report on the complexities of water management in the Yakima Basin and elsewhere. Please feel free to send tips, comments and feedback to Managing Editor Brian Calvert at [email protected].

On a scorching Friday in July, Urban Eberhart, manager of the Kittitas Reclamation District in central Washington, received an urgent phone call. On the line was Jonathan Kohr, a state fish biologist reporting an aquatic crisis in Little Creek, tributary to the Yakima River. The stream, Kohr said, had gone dry where it passed beneath I-90, leaving behind an isolated pool crammed with endangered steelhead. Without more water, the fish would die. 

The grim news did not surprise Eberhart. Though he’d served on the board of the Kittitas Reclamation District (KRD) — an irrigation project that services around 2,000 farmers — since 1986, he’d never seen a drought as brutal as this year’s. Yes, the Cascades had received their share of moisture over the winter; but unseasonably warm weather had caused the precipitation to run off as rain instead of accumulating as snow. Without snowpack to provide a delayed-release reservoir, streams in the Yakima Basin had begun running dry as early as April. Salmon and steelhead runs were collapsing all over the West Coast, plagued by hot water, low flows and disease.

Yet KRD did not succumb to catastrophe. In fact, Eberhart’s unique response to the desiccated streams may serve as a model for other Western irrigators seeking to reconcile that eternal conflict: fish versus agriculture. “We can do some inventive things during an emergency,” Eberhart says. “And this was truly an emergency.”

A severe snowpack shortfall has left steelhead high and dry throughout the Northwest.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Yakima Basin’s transformation began in 1977, when a punishing drought awoke the region to the need for better water management. That proved easier said than achieved: Over the following decades, disputes over allocation and management erupted repeatedly, driving farmers, agencies, green groups and the Yakama Nation to court. “Whenever we were in a room together, it was with a bunch of lawyers,” Eberhart says.

But the years of acrimony produced a handy side-effect: It forced the Basin’s stakeholders to interact, cooperate, and even learn to trust each other. In 2012, the warring parties finally buried the hatchet by releasing the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a $4 billion combination of water storage and conservation, improved fish passage, habitat restoration and other initiatives. Once a typically rancorous Western watershed, the Yakima had become a model for collaboration. “Folks in other states look at this and say, 'How are you guys doing this?’” says Justin Bezold, Yakima Basin project manager at Trout Unlimited. “‘How are you not at each other’s throats?’”

The new relationships paid dividends this June, when Eberhart began scheming with other agencies about how to cope with the worsening drought. The big idea: to use KRD’s irrigation canals to refill the dying tributaries northwest of Ellensburg. Normally, the canal didn’t connect with the streams. But Eberhart proposed diverting flows out of the Yakima and into the canal, then siphoning that water into the tributaries. Eventually, the water would trickle back down the streams and into the mainstem Yakima for the benefit of downriver farmers. It would simply take a circuitous — and fish-friendly — route. “We just borrowed it for a while,” Eberhart says.

The jerry-rigged program was an instant success. Streams like the Manastash, Spexarth and Taneum brimmed with life-giving liquid, and baby coho schooled in refilled Tucker Creek. Cottonwoods and willows that would have perished stayed green through the summer. 

Some tributaries required extra assistance. In Little Creek, the stream that hosted the stranded steelhead, diverted water simply percolated through the rocks instead of reaching the troubled fish. So Eberhart improvised again: With the farmer’s permission, he laid 260 feet of PVC pipe across a hayfield, connecting Little Creek with a nearby irrigation ditch. Supplemented with ditchwater, the creek filled up, and the steelhead survived.

Little Creek, before and after rehydration.
Kittitas Reclamation District and Roger Satnik

Rehydrating tributaries is just one of the drought-fighting tools being deployed within the Yakima Basin, rapidly becoming one of the West’s most forward-looking watersheds. Above the Yakima’s confluence with the Naches River, for instance, the state is paying some farmers not to irrigate by leasing out water rights through reverse auctions. This summer, the program saved nearly 900 acre-feet of water. “That’s an extremely powerful tool for keeping streams alive and building some community goodwill,” says Bezold.

Meanwhile, the future of the Integrated Plan, the agreement that helped broker all this cooperation, remains somewhat uncertain. Granted, the plan, which would do everything from building new fish passages to buying up community forests to installing new pipes, is already in progress. In fact, a pressurized, evaporation-preventing pipeline helped save Manashtash Creek this summer.

But while the state of Washington has committed over $130 million, complete implementation depends on federal funding. In July, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell introduced a Senate bill that would provide $10 to $20 million annually for the next 10 years. If that seems like a lot for a rural, semi-obscure corner of central Washington, consider that agriculture in the Yakima Basin is worth some $3.4 billion, and that the region produces a third of the nation’s hops. Among other projects, the bill would construct emergency pumping plants for irrigators and permanently enshrine the ad hoc diversion projects that saved salmon streams this summer.

Of course, introducing bills in Congress these days is like tossing pennies into a deep, dark pit. Cantwell’s bill hasn’t yet moved, though Eberhart expects it to proceed to mark-up soon. That would be good news, considering the Yakima’s situation is only growing more urgent. Anticipated fall rains still haven’t arrived, and reservoirs sit 200,000 acre-feet below last year's levels. Now Eberhart intends to fill the streams using water from behind a nearby check-dam. “What we went through this year,” he warns, “is exactly the type of year that the climate change models show will be the new normal 25 to 30 years from now.” Steelhead (and Congress), take note.

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent at High Country News. Follow @ben_a_goldfarb

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