Spawning Salmon Return to the Yakima River

Spawning salmon on the Cle Elum River, WA

Spawning salmon on the Cle Elum River, WA | American Rivers

Last week on the way home from a conference in Ellensburg, Washington put on by the Washington State section of the American Water Resources Association (a great organization the Washingtonians among you might consider joining after you make sure your American Rivers membership is up to date), I felt the need to get outside and experience a real river after talking about them indoors for two days. 

So before heading home to Tacoma, I exited I-90 at Cle Elum and headed up to Salmon La Sac to take myself and my exercise-starved dog for a trail run along the Cooper River, a spectacular tributary of the Cle Elum River proposed for designation as a wild and scenic river under the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan (Yakima Plan).   

After my run, I stopped at a couple of places to look for sockeye salmon, which I had heard were spawning in the upper the Cle Elum River (another river proposed for wild and scenic status under the Yakima Plan).  Once abundant, sockeye had until recently been absent from the Cle Elum River and the entire Yakima River Basin for over 100 years due to impassable dams. 

This year the Yakima Klickitat Fisheries Project was able to ramp up a nascent sockeye reintroduction program and transport 10,000 sockeye from Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia River to Cle Elum Lake, and right on cue those fish are heading up the river this fall in their bright red spawning color.  

Anyway, I saw dozens of them!  The best places to observe the fish are the bridges over the Cle Elum River at the Cooper River turn-off and at Salmon La Sac – look downriver from both bridges.  Sockeye are likely to be spawning for a couple of more weeks, but hurry to see them because their bright red color will soon start to fade.

While these sockeye currently rely on a long truck ride from the Columbia to Cle Elum Lake, the Yakima Plan calls for building fish passage at the fish-blocking Cle Elum Dam.  Fish passage will reliably allow tens of thousands of sockeye (as well as good numbers of spring chinook and steelhead) to recolonize extensive spawning habitat above Cle Elum Lake, including the upper Cle Elum River as well as tributaries like the Waptus and Cooper rivers (the Waptus is yet another wild and scenic river proposed under the Yakima Plan). 

And while Cle Elum dam will be first up for a fish passage system, the plan also calls for four other dams (Bumping, Tieton/Rimrock, Keechelus, and Kachess) to be outfitted with fish passage for sockeye and other salmon.   The end result will be sockeye runs of around 200,000 per year, which could make the Yakima sockeye run go from zero to the largest in the lower 48.

A lot more background on the Yakima sockeye reintroduction program can be found in this article by David Lester of the Yakima Herald-Republic.