Yakima: On the Road to Recovery

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Map of the Yakima River basin

Raise a glass to the Yakima River. Odds are, you already have, since the premium hops used in most of the nation’s craft beers are one of the major crops sprouting up from the irrigated soil in the Yakima River Valley. Local vineyards are crushing it, too.

That should provide some cheer for the throngs of outdoor recreation lovers from Seattle and the Puget Sound looking to wet their whistles after a day on the playground that surrounds the Yak. From its picturesque headwaters spilling from the national forest in the Cascade Mountains, the 214-mile Yakima combines outstanding opportunities for hiking, skiing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and more with all levels of whitewater paddling and Washington’s only Blue Ribbon trout fishing.

From Keechelus Lake near Snoqualmie Pass, the state’s longest river of origin descends from rugged mountains through a scenic basalt canyon to an agricultural valley floor that culminates in the near-desert steppe at its confluence with the Columbia River. Its upper reaches host large herds of elk and deer and exotic wildlife that includes wolverines, mountain lions, and one of Washington’s newest wolf packs. Downstream, wild trout are the main attraction, but steelhead and salmon are the real story.

Salmon that had been absent from the Yakima River Basin for more than 100 years due to impassable dams are making their return in increasing numbers. Once abundant populations of sockeye salmon have been reintroduced to the Cle Elum River tributary of the Yakima—albeit with the help of a long truck ride from the Columbia—as the initial step in a basin-wide effort to recolonize historic spawning habitat. Plans call for building fish passage where it is currently lacking at Cle Elum Dam, allowing thousands of sockeye, chinook, and steelhead to once again migrate to pristine waters upstream.

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The Backstory

Once a fishery of plenty for the indigenous Yakama people, shortsighted aquatic engineering used to develop the region’s vibrant agriculture industry in the late 1800s led to a collapse of wild salmon in the Yakima and its tributaries. As the ag industry in the otherwise arid valley grew into a $4 billion economy, the lack of fish passage at a series of five irrigation reservoirs decreased salmon numbers from an estimated 800,000 per year to just a few thousand by the 1990s.

American Rivers has joined the Yakama Nation in a fight over fish and water that has gone on for decades. Now climate change is contributing to the battle as a historically reliable snowpack has begun to dwindle. Farmers growing crops in the Yakima Basin face increasing water shortages, while the river’s forested headwaters, already bearing the scars of poor land management, are threatened by new encroachments from human development.

The Future

Partnering with Trout Unlimited, The Wilderness Society, and National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers has been sitting down with stakeholders from the irrigation districts, state and federal agencies, and the Yakama Nation to map out a strategy for restoring fisheries, improving water supply reliability and protecting land for wildlife and the new recreation economy while meeting the challenges of climate change.

The resulting Yakima Basin Integrated Plan has the Cle Elum Dam staged as the first of five dams to be outfitted with fish passage for salmon, jump-starting what could become the largest sockeye salmon run in the Lower 48. Restoration also includes the state’s purchase of more than 50,000 forested acres from a private timber company in the nearby Teanaway River watershed, one of the premier fish spawning and rearing areas in the basin.

Ultimately, the plan aims to establish more than 100,000 acres of public recreation areas that better protect forests and streams, preserve more than 20,000 acres of wilderness areas, designate about 200 miles of new Wild and Scenic rivers, and protect and restore over 70,000 acres of private land currently threatened by development or poor land management.

The goal is to improve water quality and quantity from a modern landscape perspective in order to drive a healthy economy that protects farms, improves fish habitat, and invigorates the basin’s recreational economy. Through balance and innovation, the Yakima River and its tributaries can continue to be a source of beauty, sport, and sustenance for all to enjoy for generations to come.