We’re making sure the Yakima Basin is always a great place for fish, families and farms.

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First reservoir fish passage in the Yakima Basin breaks ground

Members of the Yakama Nation look out over Cle Elum Lake, at its lowest drawdown point this year

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.”

Phil Rigdon, DNR Deputy Director at the Yakama Nation, addresses the assembly

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…)


A good year to roll out Yakima Basin residential drought plan

by Joye Redfield-Wilder, WA Department of Ecology, Central Regional Communications Manager

Record low flows in Teanaway River, tributary to the Yakima River

Water conservation can make a difference in our communities. Seattle is a national model for water efficiency, despite its rainy climes, and uses the same amount of water yearly that it did in the 1970s.

We know outside irrigation is the largest “consumer” of water in the United States. In the Yakima Valley and across Washington investments to change irrigation practices from flooding a field to sprinklers and drip are a great success.

Sadly, those efforts haven’t been enough. Why? It hasn’t rained in Seattle and the rivers aren’t running high anywhere. Mother Nature didn’t deliver a 10-foot pile of snow to slowly melt like in a typical year. We’re experiencing NOW what could be the new norm 40 years from now.

Record low flows in Teanaway River, tributary to the Yakima River

Large urban areas and farmers have been paying attention and measuring both the environmental and economic costs of droughts. And planning ahead. Now it’s time for the rest of us to consider what we can do and why.

I live in the Yakima Valley, where my grandfather homesteaded on property near White Swan, grew potatoes, sold cream from his dairy cows and raised a large family. Water is the lifeblood of this fertile valley. Our families know acutely when the well runs dry and the pump goes out and the irrigation ditch is unfilled.

Water conservation is a crucial part of how we should address drought. It’s an important component of the Yakima River Basin integrated water management plan that looks to respond to current and future water short years. A fully implemented plan calls for everyone – not just farmers – to cut their water use to 70 percent of normal in a drought. This year, many farmers are getting only 46 percent of normal.

Efficient use of municipal and domestic water throughout the Yakima Basin can make a difference and is spelled out in the plan, using voluntary, incentive-based actions that focus on landscape irrigation and other consumptive uses.

Imagine if each of us decided to lop 30 percent off our summer water bills.

I know many pay a flat fee for their irrigation whether they use it or not. Others draw from private domestic wells. Still, imagine what using 30 percent less water would look like.

What better year than this for us to start examining how residential, commercial, public entities – cities, parks, schools – can improve how water is used and better yet NOT waste water in the first place.

Benton Conservation District Native Plant Garden

Would it mean watering every other day instead of watering for 20 minutes a station EVERYDAY? This year in Kennewick, residents can only water twice a week at 20 minutes per station.

The savings could protect a declining aquifer and your domestic well and mean better water supplies for next year. Predictions are for another dire year. Let’s plan ahead.

How about for school boards and park managers? Can we examine how frequently school yards and ball fields are watered and consult with conservation districts and Washington State University to land on optimum watering schedules that protect kids, but also not waste water? Could it be as simple as changing our watering schedule and sprinkler programs?

How many of us have walked across a soggy field or seen sprinklers watering the sidewalk? How many of us are ‘keeping up with the Jones’ in our yards? I know I’m guilty.

Consider making yours a heritage garden of low-water and native plants that will add beauty and help to respond to drought now and in the future.

This can be a positive experience and not a rude wake-up call. Y’all let’s get on board! Learn more at EPA WaterSense.

Other resources:
Some Washington Irrigation Facts from WSU
Ecology’s water conservation page
Read this article at the WA Department of Ecology’s Water Blog series


Despite Drought, Long-term Outlook is Bright for Yakima Basin

by Michael Garrity, American RiversCle Elum River_Garrity

A hot, dry summer and lack of winter snowpack are causing severe hardship for the Yakima River basin’s fish and farmers this year, but the basin’s long-term outlook just got a lot brighter with big wins at the state and federal levels.

On the final day of June, the Washington State Legislature committed $30 million in state funding to the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan over the next two years. This funding will allow for construction of adult fish passage at Cle Elum Dam, a study of fish passage at Tieton Dam, final design of the Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant, and $10 million worth of fish habitat restoration and water conservation projects. 

Then, on July 1st, Sen. Maria Cantwell introduced S. 1694, the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Phase III Act of 2015. The bill, which received a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on July 7th, authorizes the first 10-year phase of the Yakima Plan.  The legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray.

Highlights of the plan’s first 10 years include:

  • Fish passage at Cle Elum and Tieton dams;
  • Lake Kachess Reservoir Drought Relief Pumping Plant, with construction and operation financed by water users rather than taxpayers (no other surface water storage projects are authorized by the legislation);
  • 85,000 acre-feet of water conservation (that’s nearly three Bumping Lake reservoirs worth of water saved);
  • Habitat restoration projects including mainstem Yakima River floodplain restoration, meadow restoration in the Teanaway Valley and elsewhere, barrier removals, and projects to get roads out of floodplains;
  • Groundwater storage projects that will provide cooler, more plentiful streamflows and reduce the need for new surface water storage;
  • Enhanced water markets; and
  • Protection of 50,000 acres in the Teanaway River Valley as a Community Forest (already accomplished) and designation of the upper Cle Elum River system as Wild and Scenic (to be accomplished through separate legislation after working with local communities to finalize a river protection plan).

The end result of these actions will be abundant salmon and steelhead runs, including a large sockeye salmon run, better instream flows for trout fishing and boating, healthier riparian areas for wildlife, and a more reliable water supply for farms and communities – even in the face of the local impacts of climate change.

It’s worth highlighting the commitment of irrigation districts and other water users to finance the construction of the Kachess Pumping Plant on their own.  This unique approach means water users will need to calculate for themselves the value of additional drought-year water supplies, and it removes the kind of artificial taxpayer subsidies that have led to many regrettable water projects in the 20th century.

Take a minute (or 60) to watch the July 7th hearing – as Chairwoman Murkowski noted, it’s not often you see representatives of an irrigation district, a Native American Tribe, American Rivers, and state and federal officials in such close agreement on major water and fisheries restoration issues.

And while the Yakima River Basin is solving its water problems without resorting to the out-of-basin water importing schemes of the past, other river basins around the western U.S. would be wise to import the Yakima Basin’s collaborative, pragmatic approach to solving challenges facing fish, rivers, farms, and communities.

Watch a new film about the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan and take action to protect and restore the Yakima’s flows and fish at www.yakimariver.org!



Outdoor Recreation Study Highlights the Importance of Recreation and Healthy Ecosystems

By Justin Bezold, Trout Unlimited-Washington Water Project

A recent study commissioned by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office highlights the importance of the natural environment to Washington’s economy. The “Economic Analysis of Outdoor Recreation in Washington State,” prepared by Earth Economics, gives readers a glimpse into the habits of outdoor enthusiasts in Washington. On average, Washingtonians spend 56 days/year playing outside. After adding non-residents, the report estimates 446 million participant days generate $21.6 billion in revenue, with the highest expenditures associated with public waters. In total, outdoor recreation supports almost 200,000 jobs in Washington—more than either the information technology or aerospace sectors—neither of which have a strong presence in the Yakima Basin.

More importantly, the study demonstrates the influence of healthy ecosystems on local economies. The Yakima River Basin is an area that experiences disproportionate public use and has a large impact on the state’s economy. The report provides strong economic arguments supporting the implementation of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Plan (“YBIP”)—the multi-year, collaborative effort designed to address water concerns in the face of climate change in the Yakima River Basin. Properly implemented, the YBIP will provide a foundation for restoring and maintaining the natural environment and maintaining a viable agricultural economy.

With a regional economy based on natural resources, recreation is vital to the economic stability and viability of Yakima Basin counties. Compared to statewide averages, the Basin experiences a high number of visitors from other areas. At less than 60 miles from downtown Seattle and with over 1.7 million acres of public lands available, the Yakima Basin is ideally situated for urban residents looking for a weekend escape. The study also suggests that Kittitas County receives the biggest benefit, as it gets over four times as many visitor days as there are county residents.

In addition to public lands, the Yakima Basin also draws visitors with the Yakima River. The report points out that generally, recreation involving public waters results in high expenditures. Though the study does not split spending by water body, the Yakima River is Washington’s only blue ribbon trout stream. As such, the river is a destination for both anglers seeking high quality fishing and boaters and swimmers in a unique environment.

Of even greater importance to the Yakima Basin, the study also examines the value of ecosystem services. Defined as “the benefits people derive from nature, free of charge [,] . . . such as breathable air, drinkable water, flood risk reduction, waste treatment, and stable atmospheric conditions,” ecosystem services are paramount to modern life. Though the report focuses on recreation as a type of ecosystem service, additional services of wildlife habitat and water quality—both critical elements of the YBIP—are included in the valuation. The total value of the ecosystem services that support recreation in Washington range from $115 to $216 billion annually. This means that Washingtonians derive great economic value from merely having high-quality natural areas.

The report does split out the value that rivers and lakes provide, which is between $600 million and $1.4 billion. This is a high relative value given that rivers and lakes occupy a sliver of the landscape. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Yakima River Basin, where the headwaters are seemingly soaked (snow and rain in the Cascade Mountains) but the lower basin is a desert landscape composed of a shrub-steppe ecosystem. Without the life-giving waters of the Yakima River, the thriving agricultural economy of the basin would look drastically different.

Overall, this study provides yet another tool for us to demonstrate the importance of Washington’s natural resources. The Yakima River Basin is a perfect example. From snow-capped mountains with glaciers, to desert uplands and canyons, the Yakima River Basin is truly an exceptional place that is a vital part of Washington’s economy.  Properly implementing the YBIP will help protect the opportunities for outdoor recreation, but more importantly, the YBIP can increase the ecosystem services provided by the Basin and protect a regional economy. Protecting the Yakima River should be a high priority for any Washington resident. Not just to have a place to play, but to also ensure clean air and water with a vibrant economy for years to come.


WSU economic study critical of Yakima Plan lacks context, makes faulty assumptions

By Michael Garrity and Steve Malloch, American Rivers

The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan is an ambitious plan to restore native fish and provide more reliable water supplies in Washington state’s Yakima River Basin. The Yakima Basin is the most productive agricultural area in Washington, and the withdrawal of water for the basin’s farms has drastically reduced Yakima River salmon populations over the last century. The Yakima Plan will increase salmon populations to hundreds of thousands and improve water management through a combination of water conservation, water markets, water storage (in both reservoirs and groundwater), habitat restoration and protection, and fish passage projects.  Supported by a broad coalition of conservation groups, the Yakama Nation, irrigation districts, local governments, and state and federal agencies, the Yakima Plan won an award from the American Water Resources Association for its innovative and collaborative approach to water management.  In 2013 the Yakima Plan secured the protection of the beloved Teanaway Community Forest, which includes the largest contiguous block of land acquired for conservation in Washington in 50 years.

The State of Washington’s Water Research Center, housed at Washington State University (WSU), recently released an economic analysis that individually evaluates the various components of the Yakima Plan.  A 2012 integrated analysis found that the Yakima Plan has an overall positive benefit-cost ratio, but the State Legislature instructed the Research Center to take a look at various projects in isolation.  The WSU report’s disaggregated approach leads it to conclude that the most worthwhile elements of the Yakima Plan are fish passage and water marketing, and that the least valuable components of the plan are water conservation, fish habitat restoration, and new water storage projects.

It is no surprise that the WSU analysis finds parts of the Yakima Plan worth doing and others not worth the price.  The Yakima Plan was developed to address many needs in the Yakima River watershed, not just economic needs, and it looks ahead to climate changed conditions never before experienced. Supporters of the Plan are working to find and implement solutions to a huge set of historically divisive economic, social, and environmental challenges – decimated salmon fisheries, ESA-listed steelhead and bull trout, drought, climate change, flood management, maintaining a strong agricultural base, and building a stronger recreational economy.  Compromise and balance are needed if solutions are to take root.  We all must move forward together to improve the unacceptable status quo for the river and the local economy, or we won’t move forward at all.

Below is our initial take on the WSU analysis – a more technical review of the report will be undertaken by the Yakima Plan workgroup as a whole in the coming weeks.

  • The WSU analysis confirms that salmon and steelhead restoration drives the benefits of the Yakima Plan, although it calculates the fisheries benefit to be roughly $1-2 billion rather than the $6-8.5 billion calculated under a previous analysis by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington Department of Ecology. This decrease is in part due to reducing the per-fish value of Columbia Basin salmon in light of higher recent returns that have somewhat reduced the scarcity – and thus the value – of salmon from a Columbia Basin-wide economic perspective.  Given that there is debate over whether recent Columbia Basin fish returns represent a temporary upward blip or a more durable trend, the WSU report’s decision to reduce the per-fish value based on recent returns is questionable.
  • The WSU report assumed 5% annual salmon population increases for all stocks from fish passage projects at headwaters reservoirs. This is likely a vast underestimate of the rate of sockeye population growth, as these fish will be actively re-introduced to habitat above dams and reservoirs and therefore will likely grow into large populations considerably more quickly than the WSU report assumes. The report also overlooks other key economic benefits of fishery restoration such as recovering steelhead to a point where they can be considered recovered under the Endangered Species Act, preventing other species of native fish from being listed as threatened or endangered, and meeting tribal treaty and trust obligations.
  • The WSU report takes greatest exception to the value of water storage projects. In the last century, water storage projects like those included in the Yakima Plan would have been built at taxpayer cost with enormous subsidies for the water users.  But in the Yakima, farmers and other water users will pay for their share of these projects with their own money, and pay for them with interest. This strongly suggests that WSU’s assumption about the low value of additional water supplies is wrong. Those who will actually pay for the water supply projects are willing to put down their own money with interest instead of relying on taxpayer dollars.
  • The report fails to recognize the value of water conservation and efficiency projects in the Yakima Basin, which help to extend water supplies for farms and communities and improve instream flows in critical reaches of the mainstem Yakima and Naches rivers as well as on tributaries like Manastash Creek. It seems that the inherently “integrated” benefits of conservation, efficiency, and better water management were just too difficult for WSU to calculate using an approach that focused on getting more water out of the river in times of drought.
  • The WSU report should provide additional momentum to the water marketing element of the Yakima Plan by encouraging more water trading within and between irrigation districts and municipalities. But we believe the study overstates this element’s benefits by making some errors about both the amount of water that could legally be transferred as well as the willingness of water users and communities to change their behavior to the extent proposed in the study, especially in a manner that is also compatible with fish recovery.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the WSU report does not acknowledge the context in which the Yakima Plan is being implemented, ignoring phasing and decision points during the project’s 30+ year timeline. The Yakima Plan’s initial ten-year development phase provides major fishery and environmental benefits, and prioritizes the water supply projects that WSU identified as the cheapest and most cost-effective. Water users will purchase the share of the projects that benefit them, with most of their investment going toward the Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant, which the WSU report says is cost effective as a stand-alone project under more pessimistic (and unfortunately more likely) climate change assumptions. This project would pump more water out of an existing reservoir in drought years, pending environmental review. No new dams will built be under the Yakima Plan in the next ten years, and new dam construction will only be considered after expanded water conservation and water markets have been implemented and analyses of climate change and water demand have been refreshed.

The path forward represented by the Yakima Plan remains the most viable and realistic way to meet the needs of fish, farms, and communities in the Yakima Basin. The phased approach that has been adopted for the Plan’s implementation will allow us to adapt to changing conditions and new information. That new information may include some of the points raised by the WSU report, but corrected to account for the report’s many flawed assumptions.

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