New Hope for Northwest SalmonWestern water issues are notoriously complex and the Yakima River Basin in central Washington is no exception. Here, competing demands for water have run headlong into the impacts of climate change–resulting in a severe water crisis and pushing salmon to the brink of extinction.
For centuries, abundant runs of wild salmon and steelhead made the journey from the Columbia River to return to the spawning grounds of the Yakima River. But by the 1890s, irrigation dams and canals were placed on the lower river for agricultural development, with little or no passage available for these anadromous fish.
This development, coupled with a shrinking snowpack and increasing demands for municipal, fisheries, agricultural, industrial and recreational uses over the years, has led to droughts and disputes in what is today one of the most intensively irrigated areas in the United States.
But now, there’s newfound hope for both salmon and communities in the face of a changing climate.
Two years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Washington State Department of Ecology brought together a working group, including the Yakama Nation, irrigation districts, counties, agencies and conservation groups, to look for feasible ways both to improve water supply reliability and to increase the few thousand remaining salmon and steelhead to several hundred thousand.
The result is an innovative and balanced plan that involves:
- Increasing salmon from the current 15,000 to as many as 300,000 by building passage to allow access to high-elevation, cold water habitat above the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dams, and improving habitat and flows.
- Protecting important habitat through 71,000 acres of land acquisition, including high-priority forested lands in the Teanaway River basin; designation of more than large swaths of public lands as Wilderness and protected recreational lands; and designation of river reaches as Wild and Scenic.
- Greatly increasing water supply reliability through a balanced mix of increased storage, conservation, efficiency and water markets.
Check out this great infographic from the Washington Department of Ecology: Yakima River Basin Integrated Plan At-a-Glance.
A Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on the plan is now out for public review and the comment period ends Jan. 3rd.
While the Yakima plan has far to go–there will be adjustment, and likely significant change, as the project moves through environmental analysis, followed by congressional and state legislature authorization and funding–it represents the best hope for the fish, farms and families of Washington State.