Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

How the Yakama Nation Is Working to Restore Fish Populations in the Upper Yakima Basin

A century ago, upwards of a million salmon and other anadromous fish species returned each year to spawn and rear in the rivers and lakes of the upper Yakima basin. However, early storage efforts involving wooden crib dams, followed by the Bureau of Reclamation’s construction of concrete dams in the 1910s and 1930s, rendered many former habitats inaccessible to these fish. The construction of Bumping Lake Dam in 1910 blocked access to the last sockeye salmon lake in the Yakima basin, and sockeye remained absent from the basin for 99 years. The Yakama Nation reintroduced sockeye to Cle Elum Lake in 2009 after Reclamation constructed a plywood flume at the dam for interim juvenile outmigration. As a permanent fix to this problem, Reclamation and the Washington State Department of Ecology are constructing a major fish passage project at Cle Elum Dam in the Upper Yakima basin. A large helix-shaped fish passage structure is being installed at the dam, and a working group of entities that include the Yakama Nation are monitoring and advancing fish reintroduction. In this interview, Brady Kent, the Yakama Nation’s agricultural development coordinator, and Tom Ring, a recently retired longtime Yakama Nation hydrogeologist, tell Irrigation Leader about the history and genesis of this project and what it aims to do. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions. 

Brady Kent: I studied geology and earth and space science, at the University of Washington. I got involved in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan (YBIP) through Tom Ring, who was a professor of mine. As I was finishing my university studies, he got me involved in the project and invited me to meetings and field trips as my interest grew. In my current position, I help with the Yakama Nation’s agricultural development and am also involved with irrigation system engineering, conservation, and modernization. 

Phil Rigdon, the superintendent of the Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources, speaking at the dedication of the Cle Elum fish passage in 2015.

Tom Ring: I am a hydrogeologist with degrees in geology. I went to work for the Yakama Nation in December 1990 and retired in November 2019, so I was employed there for almost 29 years. I worked in the Yakama Nation’s water resources program on both on-reservation and off-reservation water resources issues. I worked in the Department of Natural Resources under the leadership of Phil Rigdon in recent years and of Carroll Palmer before that. I was involved in the YBIP from its inception.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the Cle Elum fish passage project.

Brady Kent: Returns of sockeye salmon to the upper Columbia Basin have numbered 50,000 a year or fewer in recent decades—far below the 150,000–200,000 estimated historically. The Yakama Nation, Reclamation, Ecology, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and federal agencies have evaluated the feasibility of providing fish passage at the five storage dams of the Yakima Project. These dams—Bumping Lake, Cle Elum, Kachess, Keechelus, and Tieton—were never equipped with fish passage facilities. Four of the five reservoirs were originally natural lakes that supported Yakama fisheries for sockeye salmon and other anadromous and resident fish. 

The Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project (YRBWEP) Act includes provisions for developing fish passage alternatives and authorizes increased storage capacity in Cle Elum Lake dedicated to fishery uses. Built in 1933 with no provision for fish passage, Cle Elum Dam is now being retrofitted with a downstream juvenile fish passage facility consisting of a multilevel inlet ramp with gated openings that will operate at various reservoir levels. It will feed into a corkscrew ramp structure designed to maximize the survival of fish as they travel to the downstream side of the dam.

Irrigation Leader: How did the idea for the Cle Elum fish passage project come about?

Brady Kent: The Yakama people have been working to restore passage and reintroduce extirpated species ever since the dams were built. The Yakama Nation has a mission to return all salmon species to their historic numbers; fish passage is a critical element of this mission. The federal YBIP legislation includes the goal of restoring harvestable surpluses of all native species throughout their historic range. The Yakama Nation has been pursuing fish passage at all the reservoirs for decades, as is documented in congressional testimony dating back to the 1950s, the original YRBWEP legislation, litigation with Reclamation for fish passage at Keechelus Dam when Reclamation was rebuilding it in the 1990s, and the current YBIP. 

An important part of the 1999 Keechelus Dam settlement was the agreement to look at passage and to see if sockeye reintroduction was feasible. In 2001, many Yakima basin interests viewed the proposed Keechelus construction as an opportunity to add fish passage features. Reclamation considered this issue but asserted that fish passage facilities could not be added under existing authority. The Yakama Nation sued Reclamation and an agreement was reached in settlement to “study and develop feasible measures, if any, for inclusion in a Cooperative Technical Plan for permanent juvenile (downstream) and adult (upstream) fish passage implementation at Cle Elum and Bumping Lake Dams.” In addition to funding the technical work, Reclamation agreed to modify a spillway gate on Cle Elum Dam and construct a temporary flume on the spillway that allowed juvenile salmon to exit the reservoir. Interim fish passage at Cle Elum had actually been authorized in the 1994 YRBWEP legislation but had not been implemented until this point. 

This interim plywood flume on the spillway of Cle Elum Dam has been the means of getting sockeye out of the reservoir since 2009.

Through the efforts of the tribal fisheries programs, the Yakama Nation moved forward by reintroducing sockeye to the basin in 2009. Tribal technical support assisted Reclamation in developing the current construction at Cle Elum Dam. The project itself is part of the YBIP but is a holdover project from the original YRBWEP legislation. Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the WDFW, and Reclamation, the Yakama Nation has set up sensors and arrays and started tracking fish. Fisheries staff are trying to monitor how many fish make it out of the lake each year; to identify the roadblocks along the way, including impediments to passage from the lake, predation, water flow, temperature, and navigation by the dams and diversions; to measure how long it takes the fish to get to different points; and to see how many successfully return to spawn. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us the history of how salmon restoration and reservoir fish passage fit into earlier attempts at basin management and into the current YBIP? 

Tom Ring: There are many creation stories related to the YBIP, including the simplistic version that Ecology and Reclamation rented the Yakima Arboretum, convened a workgroup, and presto, the YBIP came out of the room. I wish it had been that easy, but it wasn’t. I would start the story in 2006, when the State of Washington passed the Columbia River Bill in a rather unusual legislative process that excluded tribal representatives from the discussion. After that bill passed, the governor dispatched Jay Manning, who was then the director of Ecology, to meet with the Yakama tribal council. After the council gave Jay quite an earful, he told tribal leadership that he wanted the Yakama Nation to take a clean sheet of paper and tell him what needed to be done to fix the big problems in the Yakima basin. He said, “I know that the tribes are used to being handed a fait accompli and asked, ‘Can you live with this?’ I’m not doing that. I want you to start from scratch and tell me how to fix your basin.” The tribe’s Department of Natural Resources staff prepared a list, and it was presented to the Columbia River Policy Advisory Group, which had grown out of the Columbia River Bill. The list included fish passage at the storage reservoirs in the basin as well as other things, all of which became components of the YBIP. 

At the same time, proposals for a new Black Rock Reservoir were under ongoing study. Some people were enamored with the project, while others thought that it was a white elephant that would cost too much and not actually fix the problems it was designed to address. That led to a couple of conversations with Ron Van Gundy, the manager of the Roza Irrigation District. He had looked hard at the Black Rock proposal, had decided that it was not affordable for many irrigators, and wanted to know how we could work together to come up with an alternative. 

That led to a March 2018 joint letter from the Yakama Nation and the Roza Irrigation District to Ecology and Reclamation that proposed a series of alternatives to Black Rock. Most of those alternatives are now in the YBIP, including fish passage. Reclamation’s initial reaction to the letter was to say that Congress told it to study Black Rock and not the things discussed in the letter, and that it couldn’t do anything. However, Ecology, and particularly Derek Sanderson, who was the head of the Office of Columbia River, was not bound by that congressional authorization. Ecology and Reclamation were working cooperatively on the environmental impact statement (EIS) for Black Rock at the time, but Ecology decided to do a state-only supplemental EIS on an integrated alternative to Black Rock, which was basically what Roza and the Yakama Nation had described in that letter.

Construction on the fish passage at Cle Elum Dam, seen from across the lake.

Ecology’s supplemental EIS got a favorable response. Reclamation then commenced a basin study, convened a workgroup, and refined the list in the supplemental EIS. The workgroup, which consisted of a broad cross-section of agencies, irrigation districts, environmental organizations in the basin, and fisheries folks, gave its blessing by consensus to the integrated alternative. In 2013, shortly after he took office as governor, Jay Inslee announced his support for the YBIP as his first legislative proposal. In 2013, it passed the Washington State Legislature by overwhelming majorities. The state agreed to fund up to half of its cost.

Cle Elum fish passage was high on the list of early implementation items. Fish passage had been on the Yakama Nation’s wish list since the early 20th century, but there had been no traction. Even the Evans Bill in the late 1980s, which included 600,000 acre-feet of new storage, did not include reservoir fish passage. That was before my time, but when I asked the folks who were working on it why fish passage wasn’t in there, they said that they thought it would be too difficult to pass. We took a different approach this time around, putting fish passage front and center. 

As Brady mentioned, as part of the settlement after the litigation related to the reconstruction of Keechelus Dam, Reclamation agreed to implement the interim juvenile fish passage at Cle Elum that had been authorized in the 1994 legislation but left unimplemented for 15 years. It built a plywood spillway at Cle Elum Dam and retrofitted one of the radial gates on the dam so that fish could migrate out over the top of the dam. The tribe did some experiments to see if the outmigration would work properly. It did. In 2009, the nation brought the first thousand adult sockeye salmon from Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia River and reintroduced them to Cle Elum Lake after 99 years of absence.

Irrigation Leader: You mentioned the difficulty of getting fish passage included in these various plans. Is that mainly because of the expense involved in building the structures?

Tom Ring: I don’t think so. The Yakama Nation has shown a great ability to go out and find alternative sources of funding for fisheries and projects, and it intended to do so for Keechelus passage. I think the main problem was a fear among irrigators that having fish passage at the reservoirs would raise endangered species issues or other issues that would lead to restrictions on their water supply. The YBIP is intended to not only neutralize those concerns but to actually provide a greater water supply for the irrigators. The tribe’s discussions with Ron Van Gundy led to the tribe and Roza looking each other in the eye and saying, “I can live with what you need if you can live with what I need.” Once we got to that point, we were able to make a lot of progress.

Irrigation Leader: Would the project primarily benefit sockeye salmon?

Brady Kent: Sockeye is the primary focus of the work and studies, but the tribe plans to reintroduce all the species that once inhabited the tributaries above the dam, including spring chinook, steelhead, and coho salmon and bull trout. Two species in the basin, bull trout and Mid-Columbia River steelhead, are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Irrigation Leader: How many lakes in total are you aiming to reintroduce salmon to?

Brady Kent: There are five lakes in total that we’d like to introduce salmon to: Bumping Lake, Cle Elum Lake, Lake Kachess, Lake Keechelus, and Rimrock Lake. We’re doing Cle Elum Lake first. The second hasn’t been established yet. We’d like to reintroduce salmon to one lake on both the Upper Yakima River and the Naches River to bring balance to the system.

Irrigation Leader: Would you describe the fish passage structure you are building at Cle Elum Lake?

Brady Kent: The juvenile (outmigration) passage is through a helix structure that fish are able to enter from a number of levels. It is the largest in the nation, but not the first of its kind. The downstream passage facility includes intake, gate, and helix structures along with a tunnel bypass. The intake system has six levels; as the reservoir fluctuates, one of the six intake gates can be opened. The intake leads juvenile fish into the helix, a downward-spiraling waterslide that carries them to a 1,250‑foot-long tunnel bypass that delivers them to the river below. Adult passage will be achieved through a collection facility at the base of the dam, where sockeye will be trapped for transport around the dam.

Irrigation Leader: How is this project being funded? 

Brady Kent: With the support of Governor Jay Inslee, the Washington Legislature authorized the YBIP and committed to funding up to half of it. Most funding to date has come through the Ecology’s Office of Columbia River. Reclamation and Ecology are the cofunders. The Yakama Nation has also put a large amount of staff and leadership time towards the effort.

This large hole at Cle Elum Dam—also known as a secant pile—will soon contain a completed fish passage structure.

Irrigation Leader: When is the structure expected to be completed? 

Brady Kent: Construction is over half done. The structure is expected to be done in 2024. There is a large hole in the ground, 90 by 100‑odd feet, that goes down a couple hundred feet into the ground; that hole will hold the helix. The concrete of the structure itself has been cast, and the exit structure has been completed as well. They have built two or three of the intake structures and have three left to go. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the regulatory process you had to go through to build this structure? 

Brady Kent: This will be a vast understatement of the years and careers some spent on this. The first step was to get congressional authority to undertake a feasibility study. This was contained in the public laws known as YRBWEP 1, 2, and 3. They gave Reclamation the authority to undertake and be involved in these projects. Agreements, permits, and litigation settlements associated with the various YRBWEP partners in the basin followed. The agreements included specific tasks and milestone dates regarding the feasibility study and the installation of interim and experimental fish passage features at the dams. Reclamation also agreed to seek funding and implement passage it was where determined to be feasible. Following the completion of the phase I assessment report, Reclamation began detailed studies to evaluate the feasibility of providing fish passage at Cle Elum and Bumping Lake Dams. The Yakima River basin fisheries comanagers—the Yakama Nation and the WDFW—developed an anadromous fish reintroduction plan that outlines the sequence and timing for reintroducing anadromous salmonids above the reservoir. 

Tom Ring: Adherence to environmental law has always been an important component of the YBIP. The environmental interests that are part of the work group have made it clear that, although things are authorized, they have to go through the full suite of National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act reviews before they can be implemented. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the goals of the project as far as the fish population is concerned? 

Brady Kent: We’re aiming for a final population of 100,000– 250,000 salmon. There used to be about a million salmon returning into the basin. The population has been increasing over the years. We’re moving in the right direction. A lot of projects are helping bolster that, especially habitat projects. For example, the Kittitas Reclamation District is supplementing the water in streams that may become dry during the summer. YRBWEP is able to move some water into their system; it comes back to the river eventually. 

Estimates of smolt production in Cle Elum Lake range from 136,296 to 4,582,427. The number of adults returning to the lake from this range of smolt production likewise varies widely. The historical level of sockeye salmon production in the original Cle Elum Lake is estimated at about 31,125 fish. Based on the increase in the surface area of the lake due to its use as a reservoir for irrigation storage, this estimate has been expanded to about 58,782 adults. We estimate that Cle Elum Lake could eventually produce sufficient smolts to yield an adult return of 30,000–50,000 sockeye. Once the fish population levels return to a certain level, the fishery will open to the public for fishing, which is our goal. 

Irrigation Leader: What economic benefit would that provide? 

Brady Kent: Restoring this salmon population and other fisheries would have a huge benefit. The Copper River and other rivers in Alaska are huge draws for fishers. Having something like that in Washington State would be great. We commissioned a study from Washington State University that showed that the salmon and the conservation that this plan would provide would contribute to the economy. 

Tom Ring: The first economy of the Yakima basin and Pacific Northwest was based on the annual returns of salmon and the regional trading among tribes that centered on salmon. The Yakama people never lost the vision of a salmon-based economy and have worked for decades to restore this economically and culturally essential resource. The progress now being made is a tribute to the persistence of generations of Yakama members and natural resources staff. 

Brady Kent is the agricultural development coordinator for the Yakama Nation. 

Tom Ring is a hydrogeologist who recently retired from his position at the Yakama Nation. He can be contacted at tomhoma@icloud.com.