Farmers reroute water for fish

Yakima irrigators use canals to keep streams flowing in drought

July 2015

A collaboration between irrigators, conservation groups and state and federal agencies in Central Washington’s Yakima basin is using irrigation canals built to deliver water to farms to also deliver water to important salmon streams so they do not run dry amid this summer’s severe drought.

Thanks to the cooperative effort, water is still flowing down seven tributaries of the Yakima River, sustaining imperiled fish and riparian vegetation that might otherwise be lost.

“The water would normally just run down the river’s mainstem, but now it’s taking a different route where fish can benefit along the way,” said Urban Eberhart, general manager of the Kittitas Reclamation District and a longtime Yakima Basin farmer. “It’s just great to see how big a difference that makes in keeping water in creeks that otherwise might have none in a year like this.”

creek with pipe pouring water

Siphon pipe installed by the Kittitas Reclamation District pours water into Big Creek to maintain its flow for fish during this summer’s severe drought. Photo courtesy Kittitas Reclamation District.

He credited the collaborative effort to improved relationships forged through development of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Plan, a locally developed strategy to resolve competing water demands in the face of mounting drought and climate change.

“It’s an example of how you can get people who historically were fighting each other in court to think about joint solutions to common problems,” he said.

Irrigation canals constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to carry water to Yakima Basin farms crisscross local stream channels, but historically there was no connection between the canals and streams. Then this year’s drought led farmers, biologists and others to wonder whether connecting the two could benefit fish, without disrupting drought-pinched water supplies for area farms.

Manastash Creek on June 10 prior to supplementation by water from Kittitas Reclamation District canals. Photos courtesy Kittitas Reclamation District.

Manastash Creek on June 12 after supplementation began. Photo courtesy Kittitas Reclamation District.

“We’re lucky that we have some creative people who looked at this dry year and asked, ‘Is there a way to make this situation better?’” said Dale Bambrick, who leads NOAA Fisheries’ office in Ellensburg, Wash. The effort builds on previous efforts by the Bonneville Power Administration and other organizations that have funded leases and purchases of water rights to maintain flows in rivers and streams for salmon and steelhead, he said.

The tributaries are home to threatened Middle Columbia River Steelhead as well as spring Chinook salmon and resident trout. Keeping water in the tributaries not only helps the fish but sustains the willows, cottonwood trees and other streamside vegetation that are important ingredients of good salmon habitat but otherwise might die off if left without water for a year.

Bureau of Reclamation Columbia-Cascades Area Manager Dawn Wiedmeier credited Eberhart with leading the effort to take advantage of the canals to improve conditions for fish. Eberhart said he and partner agencies, pressed by the dry conditions, figured out how to pull off the plan largely on the fly.

The Yakima Basin has experienced record low flows this year, Eberhart said. By mid-June river and stream flows had dropped to levels they usually do not reach until late August.

As drought conditions worsened, Eberhart won support from irrigators and state agencies to reroute water that would typically flow down the Yakima River into some of the district’s canals, which could transfer the water into several tributaries of the Yakima. The redirected water still ends up back in the mainstem of the Yakima River and is available to downstream users who need it, but it helps sustain the smaller tributaries along the way.

“It’s going to the same place but it’s doing some work for fish as it goes,” Bambrick said.

Tributary habitat is especially important for salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing because it provides juvenile fish refuge from stronger currents and predators in the mainstem river. Degraded tributary habitat is listed as a major factor in the decline of area salmon and steelhead.

Representatives of the Yakama Nation and Trout Unlimited praised the effort to keep the streams flowing during a July 7 hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Eberhart stressed that the cooperative process of developing the Integrated Plan improved communications enough that it was possible to pull the effort together quickly. Although farmers in the Kittitas Reclamation District expect to run out of irrigation water by the beginning of August, they plan to keep routing the water into tributaries for fish.

“We got to where all the groups were talking together,” Eberhart said. “Now we have a level of trust and respect where you can do more and you can do it faster.”