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Good Morning Yakima River! By Rebecca Wassell, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group

“Good morning, Yakima River! You’re looking lovely today!” For nearly nine years, I drove one or both of my children over the Umptanum Road bridge to school most days. Greeting the river was a critical part of our morning routine, and when we missed it, we hurried to make up for our slip with a detailed conversation on the way home, “Good afternoon, Yakima River! I hope your day has been going well! You’re looking a little turbid today – lots of sediment coming in from the Teanaway?” We observed the gravel bar that appears and disappears with fluctuations in flow, the trees that make their way slowly downstream, season after season, and the drift boats that carry flyfishers along our Blue Ribbon trout stream. We celebrated the end of the week with Fridays in the Forest, moseying through the cottonwood gallery at Irene Rinehart Riverfront Park, building forts with downed branches and playing in the mud (sometimes finding more leeches than one would hope).

Those days of parenting young children felt impossible at times. I was needed in so many conflicting capacities. Looking back, I realize I was experiencing a tiny, human-sized version of the Yakima River’s constant balancing act. We rely on the river for irrigation, recreation, drinking water, habitat for fish and wildlife, and overall ecosystem function. These roles frequently come into conflict, and the river is forced, or rather, we force the river to make compromises.

I have been fortunate to work on salmon recovery in the Yakima Basin for most of my career. I began my work in 2002, just four years after Mid-Columbia steelhead and bull trout were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act and only two decades after the Yakama Nation’s lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation successfully protected Spring Chinook spawning in the Cle Elum River. Public investment in and support for salmon recovery has only increased since then. Restoration actions in the Yakima Basin are supported through multiple federal, state, and private funding mechanisms, and implemented by agency and non-governmental partners. We pride ourselves on collaboration, and the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, now 14 years old, is a national model for bringing diverse interests together to address current and anticipated water shortages.

Our salmon, steelhead, and bull trout are still in danger of extinction. We are working hard to restore spawning and rearing habitat in the headwaters, but we sometimes lose up to 90% of our out-migrating smolts as they traverse the lower Yakima River, heading to the Columbia, and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. Poor passage at dams, high water temperatures, and heavy predation from both native and non-native predators make survival the exception instead of the norm. 

Fisheries managers are scrambling to find solutions to this. The Bureau of Reclamation and irrigation districts are prioritizing fixes to the passage issues and developing novel ways of assisting out-migration with targeted flow releases. The Yakama Nation, state agencies, and NGOs have identified areas of cool water refuge and are working to make them more accessible to fish. Many partners are brainstorming how the river could be managed differently to improve smolt survival.

This critically-important focus on improving migration success comes with a caveat: transporting fish is just one of the Yakima River’s vital roles. As we work to address the factors that limit migration success, we need to remember the key ways in which our management of this river shares some traits with parenting: 

  1. We can’t shape the river to play only the roles we think are most important. In parenting, there is immense value in the downtime, in the moseying and in the mud. Similarly, the ancillary values of the river, the things we don’t fully understand, are likely to be the most important. We must protect and preserve the margins, the side channels, and the riparian forests that house the cottonwood galleries. We must, in the words of pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold, “save all the parts”.

  2. Caring for this river is a long, long game. We must find a way to keep and restore our salmon and steelhead – that’s not optional, just as the immediate safety and survival of our children is our highest priority. But we also have to think long-term. What ecosystem functions will we value in the future? How can we change our management now to allow the river to sustain its processes over time? 

  3. We need to look beyond the river “corridor” to view the “riverscape”. I don’t mean to stretch my analogies too far, but I think this is akin to recognizing that we don’t raise our children in a bubble. As parents, we share the responsibility for building the healthy and safe communities we want our children to experience. Similarly, if we want our rivers to be healthy, we need to recognize that they are tightly integrated with the land and people around them. 

  4. We need to be humble, ready to learn and willing to adapt our approaches.

I feel incredibly privileged to play the roles I do: parent, partner, ecologist, community member, and friend. I feel particularly lucky to work in the Yakima River watershed, with brilliant colleagues committed to finding solutions to our immediate and long-term resource needs and active volunteers who jump in to help whenever they can. As we struggle to help the river balance its roles, I hope we will again turn to Aldo Leopold who, with his wife Estella, raised five scientists who furthered their family’s conservation legacy. In describing how predator control impacted the health of wildlife and forest communities, Leopold reminded us of the unintended consequences of managing an ecosystem for just one role: “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” 

We want the Yakima River to live forever, and we must acknowledge that only then will there be a full understanding of its roles. In the meantime, let’s keep all the parts, preserve the floodplains and the forests, and let it spend a lot of time playing in the mud.


Come see the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group at the 25th Annual GISS in the hands-on science booths running between 9am and 1pm at the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center! No pre-registration needed. Find out more here:

1 Comment

Beautifully written and very informative! Thank you for the work you and the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group do!

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