The promise of a plan in the Yakima Basin
WHEN IT’S TOO HOT TO FISH, Yakima River guide Nate Rowley snorkels his favorite trout water. He’s been snorkeling a lot lately. On a scorching August afternoon at a coffee shop in downtown Cle Elum, Washington, he reports his findings from a stretch of the Teanaway River, one of the Yakima’s more significant tributaries, protected in 2013 by the state’s unprecedented purchase of 50,000 acres of forest surrounding the river.
“In years past, we’d find big healthy rainbows and bull trout holding in pools, but this year there’s nothing left,” Rowley says. “We used to have summer flows in the Teanaway that were 100 to 120 cfs [cubic feet per second]. Now we have five or six—water just dribbling between pools. This concerns me, because unless big changes are made, I think what happens on the Teanaway could happen on the Yakima.”
As in much of the West, rising temps and falling flows are a growing concern in this Central Washington valley. But Rowley’s “big changes” are coming. A blueprint for the future has been drawn up, and it’s called the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan (YBIP). A critical mass of diverse stakeholders has signed on, and money is already being spent—in April, the U.S. Senate, led by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, approved $92 million in federal funding for the project. Cantwell is a Democrat, but Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, who just won his November re-election bid in the Yakima-land of Washington’s 4th Congressional District, has listed investment in the YBIP as one of his top priorities. If you haven’t noticed, this type of cross-party cooperation is at an all-time low, making the odds for change on the Yakima better than just about anyplace else. The plan isn’t perfect, but it could provide a model for other parts of the country.
DRIVING EAST on Interstate 90 from Seattle over Snoqualmie Pass, you’ll see the beginning of the Yakima. Along its 200- mile length, the river is home to five major dams that store a million acre-feet of water. Problem is, farmers in the basin have undisputed claim to more than twice that—2.4 million acre-feet. And the Yakima Indian Nation has treaty-backed fishing rights on the Yakima and its tributaries, as well as in the Columbia, that legally require there to be enough water in the river for salmon. Ski areas and municipalities need water too, another reality made all the more challenging with summers getting longer and snowpacks getting lighter.
A GORGOUS MIDDLE-COLUMBIA STEELHEAD, WHICH HAS BEEN ESA-LISTED AS THREATENED FOR THE PAST 18 YEARS. | photo by JOE ROTTER
Since the late 1970s it’s been clear that there wouldn’t be enough water to satisfy everyone, which led to 30 years of debate, negotiation, and often-contentious legal challenges. When a wildly expensive proposal for a huge water storage system called Black Rock Reservoir was finally shot down in 2008, a strange thing happened. Adversaries began talking to one another. An innovative partnership between tribes, state and federal agencies, irrigators, environmental groups, recreationalists, and flyfishers emerged, and the YBIP—which includes various water-storage ideas—is the result.
“Our water table is decreasing and usage is increasing,” says Jack Mitchell, owner of the Evening Hatch Fly Shop in Ellensburg, and guide on the Yakima since 1988. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is a major issue. Increasing basin storage is an option, and at this time probably a very good one.” As an ambitious idea, the plan is not without controversy.
First, it’s a long-term proposition, which is always a risk given the whims and vagaries of politics. It also may or may not be a viable investment. A Washington State University economist hired by the legislature to analyze the cost says the $3.8 billion price tag is too expensive. It includes expanding existing dams, and building at least one new one. In addition to more and bigger dams, the plan calls for implementing water markets, incentivizing irrigator conservation, and increasing groundwater storage. It also promises to restore— with hatcheries and fish-passage systems through and over dams—the formerly bountiful salmon runs of the Yakima, a river that once produced 800,000 salmon a year, second only to the Snake in historic Columbia-tributary salmon production. The goal is to rebuild the runs to at least 200,000, despite the long, questionable record of fish passage and hatchery-based remedies to do this kind of work successfully.
Restoration of salmon runs notwithstanding, Mitchell isn’t the only member of the local flyfishing community that supports the plan, which many see as the most viable solution to a longstanding water shortage, while also protecting fish and fishing. “The bottom line is that we’re lucky to have three reservoirs sitting atop the Yakima Basin,” says Steve Joyce, co-owner of Red’s Fly Shop and Canyon River Ranch, which overlooks the Yakima River about 15 minutes south of Ellensburg. “Yes they are used for irrigation, but the majority of that irrigation takes place below the blue ribbon trout water, and the elevated flow levels during the hottest part of the year keep water temps in check and oxygen content high. We’ve been fortunate on the Yakima to not have to deal with excessive temperature levels over the past decade, except for a couple of extreme drought years.”
CUTTIES AND RAINBOWS, PEACEFULLY CO-EXISTING ON THE YAKIMA. | photo by JOE ROTTER
A key to keeping healthy trout in the Yakima Basin is keeping water in small but vital tributaries. Flyfishers have an unlikely ally in this undertaking that in many ways represents the best of what the YBIP has to offer. His name is Urban Eberhart and his job title is Secretary Manager of the Kittitas Reclamation District (KRD). But he likes to call himself a “climate adaptation specialist.” He doesn’t dress the part.
On a 95-degree afternoon, Eberhart greets me at an irrigation canal wearing pressed black slacks, pressed white dress shirt, a bolo tie, and cowboy boots. He shows me pictures from a summer morning in 2015 when the creek, aptly named Little, was running perpendicular to and underneath the canal. With the exception of a few pools where steelhead smolts were trapped, the creek was dry. Eberhart received a phone call that day from a fisheries manager, wondering if there was anything that could be done to save the stranded steelhead. Within hours of that call, Eberhart and some friends were running an eight-inch diameter PVC pipe from the canal into the creek. That wasn’t enough to re-water it, so another pipe went in. Then another. Finally the creekbed charged, and water flowed for about a mile downstream before petering out. So once again, borrowing water destined for farmer’s fields, Little Creek was rewatered. Before the work was finished, seven different tributaries along KRB’s crucial network of canals, laterals, ditches, pipes, and drains— in a project that came to be known as the Kittitas Reclamation District’s “tributary rehydration project”—borrowed water from an irrigation system not originally designed with the best interests of fish in mind.
“We’re lucky that we have some creative people who looked around and asked if there was a way to make the situation better,” says Dale Bambrick, who leads the NOAA Fisheries office in Ellensburg. Bambrick added that the redirected water still ends up back in the mainstem of the Yakima. “It’s going to the same place, but it’s doing some work for fish along the way.”
One species greatly assisted by KRD’s emergency re-watering plan is the Middle Columbia Steelhead, which has been listed as threatened under the ESA since 1999. Manastash Creek, west of Ellensburg, is an important Yakima River tributary for these fish. Via an early-action item of the YBIP, fish passage was improved on Manastash, and nearly 20 cfs of permanent instream flows have been added. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has subsequently used PIT tags to record 17 wild steelhead entering Manastash the past two years. This didn’t go unnoticed by Trout Unlimited, and in an effort to assist Eberhart with upgrading the stopgap measures of 2015, TU recently partnered with the KRD to develop a program that will divert water from the Upper Yakima River into canals with up to 30 percent leakage. “Our approach is to find the worst-leaking sections, plug the holes, conserve water, and then convey that conserved water to tributary-canal intersections,” wrote TU’s Yakima Basin Project Manager, Justin Bezold, on TU’s Wild Steelheaders United website, outlining some highlights of the YBIP.
LITTLE CREEK, ONE OF SEVEN YAKIMA-RIVER TRIBS
THAT RECEIVED DIVERTED IRRIGATION WATER
IN 2015. THIS IS AFTER THE DIVERSION…
…THIS IS BEFORE.
“Nowhere else in the United States will you find work like this being done right now,” says Eberhart. “But we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, and also because it benefits everyone. One of the biggest contributing factors to flood damage is lack of baseline summer flows in creeks like this one. If it’s dry, then a big rain or melt event just blows the creek out. But if you keep the fish alive, you keep the trees on the banks alive, you keep the bugs alive, and the ability of the system to absorb water is also retained, which is good for farmers.”
Eberhart has credited the success of the tributary rehydration project to relationships forged through development of the YBIP, saying that they have reached a level of trust and respect where “you can do more and you can do it faster.”
For a guy whose job is to make sure farmers have water, Eberhart talks a lot about the importance of saving fish, a chore for which he sees dams playing an indispensable part. “The climate experts are telling us the years of 2015 and 2016 will be the norm in 30 years. But in talking to folks who live here, there are those of us who think the new normal is in some ways already here. The ability to store water will have to take the place of snowpack, which will be non-existent at mid-elevations in this valley.” He points to the water flowing in Little Creek. “The water that is in this creek right now is there because of a dam.”
BACK AT THE COFFEE SHOP, I ask Rowley if he agrees that more storage is the key. Surprisingly, he does, with a few reservations. “With more storage, the economic incentive will be to use it to grow more food, not more fish, so we would need a policy for fish that has some teeth. But we finally have the right people at the table to make that happen.”
Joyce agrees, saying that the governing bodies and other stakeholders—Bureau of Reclamation, WDFW, tribes, farmers, and recreational users like anglers—recognize that even during years that the valley may receive normal snowpack and precipitation, it’s just not sticking around like it used to, making it even harder to meet irrigation demands. “The agencies have the foresight to plan for additional storage, which would result in plenty of cold, clean water in the Yakima River,” Joyce says. “This benefits all of the various user groups, which is a rare thing in this complicated day and age.”