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NW Fishletter #391, March 4, 2019
 Bipartisan Support Delivers Wins For Farmers, Fish In Once-Contentious Yakima Basin
While water users in some Columbia River tributaries have been busy arming themselves for the traditional dams-and-farmers-versus-fish fight, the major players in the Yakima Basin have been quietly working together to solve their water issues.
Now, five years into the 30-year Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, several projects have been completed, sockeye are returning to areas where they've been blocked by dams for a century, and Congress has approved the plan's first major water storage project to ensure everyone gets some water in drought years.
Those involved with the plan say it's much more than dozens of projects strung together to form a wish list. It's a comprehensive long-term program funded by state, tribal, federal and private dollars that sets out to prove that fish, farms and communities can coexist, even in the desert of eastern Washington.
"It's a huge effort, and it's been the highlight of my career as a Fish and Wildlife biologist and manager--to help contribute to something that's this broad and ecosystem-based, and that includes people," Mike Livingston, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's regional director, told Clearing Up.
"This is a coalition that really isn't Democrat or Republican. It's about the values we all want--both instream and out-of-stream, for fish and agriculture and the community," added Phil Rigdon, superintendent of natural resources for the Yakama Nation. "When you come together, really, you can get a lot done."
Wendy Christensen, the Bureau of Reclamation's manager of the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project, agreed. "It has been really rewarding to be part of this project, and we are making great strides," she said.
The plan is now seen as a model for other basins facing serious water issues, Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Ecology, told Clearing Up. It not only resolves current issues surrounding water supply, but prepares the Yakima Basin for earlier snowmelt and more frequent drought--the main consequences predicted to occur in this region due to climate change. Its success has led to a shift in her agency's approach, with a new policy that includes "integrated water solutions," she said, adding, "Seeking solutions that are balanced and that try to stay out of the courts is one of our strategic priorities."
Rigdon said an example of how the coalition is actually working together came in 2015, when drought tested the group's cooperative spirit, and its members' so-called opposing needs for water. It was the year that an estimated 250,000 adult sockeye died in the Snake and Columbia rivers, largely from warm water temperatures.
In the Yakima Basin, instead of fighting over the limited water supply, users turned to each other for help. Rigdon said fish in the Yakima's main stem were suffering from warm water temperatures, and also in trouble because smaller streams where they often hole up during the hottest parts of summer were drying up. The Kittitas Reclamation District stepped up and used its canals to supply the smaller tributaries with cooler water. "That probably saved a lot of fish that are now going to come back this year," he said.
One of seven main elements of the plan is to find a way for both juvenile and adult fish to get past five U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dams, all built between 1909 and 1933 with no fish passage. The dams help supply water to Washington's most productive agricultural region, and are vital to the $4.5-billion agricultural industry. They also blocked spawning areas for sockeye, coho and summer Chinook, which were extirpated from many Yakima Basin tributaries.
Christensen said dams in the Yakima Project were built largely for irrigation and flood control. New uses were later added, including recreation, protecting fish and wildlife, and producing hydroelectric power. Two of the projects--Chandler and Roza dams--produce a total of 25 MW, which is sold by the Bonneville Power Administration, she said. Six reservoirs in the project capture over a million acre-feet when snow in the central Cascades melts. "In a normal year, it's a reliable water supply," Christensen said; but in a drought year, it's not.
And droughts have become only too common in the 6,155 square-mile Yakima Basin. Redfield-Wilder noted that the basin has gone through 14 major droughts since the 1970s, occurring with more frequency in recent years. That makes water reliability an even bigger concern in this food-producing region.
Christensen noted that the basin holds a lot of potential to recover fish, because a lot of the upstream habitat is undeveloped, and much of it is on public land and likely to stay in tact. "We have a huge opportunity here," she said.
Before the dams, the Yakima River was one of the Columbia River's largest salmon-producing basins. With up to 800,000 adult returns each year, it was second only to the Snake River in its production, Livingston said. He said reviving a healthy population of salmon and steelhead in the basin is culturally important to the Yakama Nation, and also significant for recreational fishermen. "Few places in the state are we building brand new opportunities, but the Yakima Basin is one of them," he said.
Livingston said that, because of the cooperation, partners have been successful getting funding and legislative support for the plan. "When we meet with legislators at the state and federal levels, they're thanking us," he said. "We make it easier to fund because there's not much controversy around it."
On Feb. 12, by a vote of 92-8, the U.S. Senate passed S. 47, a comprehensive lands bill that includes authorization of the plan's Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant. In the House, Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse and Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier are also supporting the plan, and together introduced HR 1048, which awaits action.
The House followed with a 363-62 vote on Feb. 26, also passing the Natural Resources Management Act--a package of more than a hundred bills--with widespread bipartisan support.
If signed into law by President Donald Trump, a new $200-million floating station--to be paid for by Yakima Basin irrigation districts--would be used only in severe droughts to tap up to 200,000 acre-feet of water from Kachess Reservoir. The reservoir holds 825,000 acre-feet, and currently only the top 239,000 acre-feet are available each year for irrigation. The plan would still leave about 386,000 acre-feet in the reservoir in a drought year, and--under current climate conditions--would refill within five years.
Congressional support would also aid plans for juvenile passage at Cle Elum Reservoir, where the Yakama Nation reintroduced sockeye in 2009, and have since released as many as 10,000 adults in the lake each year. They're now working to improve downstream passage for the young sockeye.
Rigdon said while so many of the projects are important to fish recovery, they're currently focused on the Cle Elum project because it's the plan's first effort to complete juvenile passage.
Juveniles are now using a spillway constructed in 2005, but that's only effective in late May, when the reservoir is high enough for fish to swim out. The Bureau of Reclamation worked with the plan's partners to design a helix spillway with six different intakes that would provide passage at any reservoir elevation and allow smolts to leave on their own timing. With an estimated price tag of $140 million, the helix passage is already authorized, and construction began in 2015.
But more funding is needed. "Continuing to fund that effort is crucial, and the federal legislation opens the door to keeping that effort going," Livingston said.
Many other projects dealing with fish passage, habitat improvements, water storage, irrigation infrastructure upgrades and water conservation are completed, underway, or planned for future years.
"Sockeye are back in the Yakima Basin, and they'll be here from now on. That's a huge thing," Rigdon said. In the bigger picture, these efforts will not only bring fish back to the Yakima River and its tributaries, but, as habitat is restored, will also help improve conditions in the lower Columbia River. "That's our goal, and it takes the innovation of the coalition that has come together to look at this as a community," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey
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