by Nicky Pasi, American Rivers
More than a century ago, Yakima River Basin salmon runs ranged between 300,000 to one million fish. Sockeye, coho, and spring, summer and fall chinook could be found in its waters, alongside steelhead, cutthroat, rainbow and bull trout. The prominence of salmonids changed abruptly after 1905, when the Bureau of Reclamation began construction on the Yakima Project, five reservoirs that currently irrigate 464,000 acres of farmland. While this system has given rise to a $4.5 billion annual agricultural economy that produces 70% of the nation’s hops and millions of pounds of apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries and wine grapes, none of the dams included fish passage facilities. Without access to spawning grounds and key habitat above the reservoirs, salmon populations quickly declined. Within a few short generations, coho and sockeye salmon had been completely extirpated from the system.
On August 27, 2015, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, along with their partner agencies from the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan and representatives from state and federal legislators, ceremonially broke ground on the fish passage at Cle Elum Dam. Tribal leaders spoke in appreciation of the guidance, wisdom and perseverance of past leaders who were no longer present to witness the outcome of their efforts. “They saw the need to build partnerships,” said Phil Rigdon, DNR Deputy Director at the Yakama Nation and Master of Ceremonies for the event, “They knew we needed each other to achieve our goals.”
The Yakama Nation has been working to return sockeye to Cle Elum Lake and the miles of pristine salmon habitat above it since 2009. One thousand adult sockeye were transplanted from the Wenatchee and Okanogan river basins that summer, followed by increasingly large numbers every successive year. They flourished and successfully spawned, with juveniles exiting the lake via a temporary flume installed at the dam’s spillway. 80,000 outmigrants were noted at Prosser dam in 2011, 701 of which returned to the Yakima Basin in 2013. In 2014, 4000 fish were introduced and 4,500 returned, achieving replacement rate. Biologist projections show that the Yakima Basin has the potential to be one of the largest salmon runs in the lower 48 states if recovery continues. (more…)