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Interior and USDA Officials Announce New Partnerships to Support Water Management and Conservation in the Yakima River Basin

YAKIMA, Wash. – Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael L. Connor and Deputy Under Secretary for U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Environment Ann Mills today concluded a two-day visit to the Yakima River Basin where they met with local stakeholders, including the Yakama Nation, to assess progress on several projects associated with the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan.

Yesterday, Deputy Secretary Connor and Under Secretary Mills participated in a ribbon cutting ceremony and tour to mark the recent completion of a new access road and bridge over the spillway of Cle Elum Dam. The new road and bridge will provide access for construction of new Cle Elum Dam Fish Passage Facilities, a key project of the Integrated Plan. Along the tour they met with Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Workgroup members and viewed sockeye salmon spawning in tributaries above Cle Elum Reservoir. The Yakama Nation’s fisheries program is restoring one of only four remaining sockeye populations in the Columbia River Basin.

“By using a watershed-scale approach and working with the state, the Yakama Nation, and a diverse range of stakeholders, the Yakima Basin has become a model for watershed collaboration,” said Deputy Secretary Connor. “The variety of projects still underway will help to ensure that the Yakima Basin continues to be an excellent example of success in ecosystem restoration and sustainable water resource management while accounting for the impacts of long-term climate change.”

Deputy Secretary Connor and Under Secretary Mills also signed a Proclamation to support the collaborative efforts of the Western Watershed Enhancement Partnership, a joint program between the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to proactively improve the health and resiliency of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the Yakima River Basin Watershed. This proactive commitment will protect municipal and agricultural water supplies, infrastructure and ecosystem health.

The Department of the Interior, through the Bureau of Reclamation, and the USDA work closely to address water supply and demand imbalances. Earlier this year, Interior and USDA announced more than $47 million in investments to help water districts and producers on private working lands better conserve water resources. Ensuring the ongoing coordination of these federal programs can further stretch limited water supplies, fulfilling a commitment made by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Reclamation Commissioner Lopez in June this year.

While in Washington, Deputy Secretary Connor also signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Roza Irrigation District, the Kittitas Reclamation District and the Natural Resource Investment Center to find practical ways to develop and secure non-federal public and private financing for projects related to the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan. The agreement supports the irrigation districts in exploring financial partnerships to fund implementation of Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant.

The NRIC was announced in December 2015 to spur partnerships with the private sector to develop creative financing opportunities that support economic development goals while advancing the Department’s resource stewardship mission. The Center uses market-based tools and innovative public-private collaborations to increase investment in water conservation and critical water infrastructure, as well as promote investments that conserve important habitat in a manner that advances efficient permitting and meaningful landscape-level conservation.


How the western water wars may end

by Zach Colman

OCTOBER 16, 2016 YAKIMA, WASH.—Over the past 100 years, this arid region of Central Washington has undergone a stunning transformation. Engineers and farmers have captured the annual mountain snowmelt and used it to change the sagebrush steppe into an agricultural Eden of tree fruits, mint, hay, and corn.

Rows of green crops adorn a once-parched landscape. Reservoirs funnel water to farms and turn massive turbines that spirit electricity to far-off coastal cities. And Central Washington has become an apple basket for the world.

Charlie de la Chapelle has lived the story of this water-borne agrarian bounty. His family has worked the land for four generations, and the square-jawed farmer has spent a successful career cultivating apples and pears.

But in recent years, his livelihood has been growing less reliable. First federal and state courts said farmers needed to leave more water in rivers for endangered fish to survive. Then changes in snowmelt worsened Mr. De la Chapelle’s situation. He’s noticed snowpack on nearby Mt. Adams getting lighter and his water allotment less predictable.

“The only way I can make it work is by keeping ground out of production,” he says.

Now, with its old water habits threatening livelihoods and ways of life, the area is undergoing another transformation. It is revamping how it manages one of its most precious resources – and in the process could point the way for an American West where long-standing water challenges are only growing more urgent and fractious.

In an innovative agreement, farmers have joined with environmental groups and state and federal officials to both increase water availability and restore the natural landscape. Although the plan focuses on just one section of the state, it is an agriculturally significant one – the Yakima Basin. And it’s comprehensive: The plan includes voluntary conservation programs, building new water-storage reservoirs, and adding structures to dams that would help fish seek cooler waters as they migrate upstream. The framework, in place at the state level since 2012, has begun to show promise, even though federal approval by the US Congress is still needed for full implementation.

Some people – including De la Chapelle – are skeptical the plan will work. But many water experts say the fledgling accord could be a model largely because farmers themselves have agreed to pay for investments that promise to enable their water needs to be met alongside those of city dwellers and endangered salmon.

Photo by: Alfredo Sosa. Mt. Adams looms in the background of the Yakima Basin in the Yakama Indian Reservation of Central Washington.



Environmental groups request support for Yakima Plan legislation

On July 19, representatives from eight major environmental nonprofits sent the following letter to Washington’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation, urging them to join colleagues already co-sponsoring H.R. 4686, the House version of the Yakima Bill:


Experiment promises to aid fish — and possibly much more

Photo Credit: Tim Hill, WA Dept. of Ecology

Photo Credit: Tim Hill, WA Dept. of Ecology

by: Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board, 7/14/2016

On the Yakima River near Roza Dam, biologists recently conducted a little experiment that could revolutionize the policies and politics surrounding fish migration, which has long been one of the Northwest’s most contentious issues. If implemented on a large scale, the experiment could help provide a template for protecting endangered fish species around the country.



Fish Passage Innovations on the Yakima

We’ve blogged about fish passage here in the Yakima Basin before – about how the reservoirs that power our agricultural economy were constructed without passage systems, and the steps the Yakima Plan partners have taken to restore struggling and extirpated species.  Almost a year later, we’ve moved a lot of ground on construction of the $100 million downstream passage facility at Cle Elum Reservoir, but what about upstream passage?  What about the sockeye returning to spawn in the lake?

Cle Elum Dam poses some unique challenges on that front.  At 165-feet high, the dam is too tall and steep to accommodate a traditional fish ladder. The reservoir itself rises and falls throughout the year as the water is tapped for irrigation, another mark against typical ladder systems. The original downstream passage designs incorporated a trap-and-haul facility below the dam, where returning adults would be gathered, moved to a tanker truck, and driven up to the lake.

One new alternative could let the fish move themselves.  It’s called the Whooshh, and its engineers have been working with Yakama Nation Fisheries biologists at Roza Dam all summer, conducting tests to determine its impacts on the health, mortality rates, egg viability and fecundity of spawning salmon.  The Whooshh is a flexible pressurized tube, similar to the type used at drive-up bank windows, capable of transporting fish at speeds of 25 feet per second.  Cle Elum will require a 1100-foot long tube, the largest ever designed by Whooshh Innovations, to span the height of the dam, the length of the spillway, and the seasonal drawdown of the reservoir.

Fish moved via Whooshh expend no energy compared to fish tackling traditional ladders, leaving them with more stored nutrients to put toward egg development.  The Roza Dam trials will help biologists gauge whether the stress of being removed from the water and sped through a tube is more, less or comparable to trap-and-haul techniques.  Until all the numbers are crunched, this is just one possible alternative, but these tests continue to demonstrate the Yakima Plan’s commitment to innovation and best practices!

For more footage of the Roza trials, check out KNDO 23’s piece, or the Department of Ecology’s video.

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