Meandering through the bottom land northwest of Yakima, Cowiche Creek is the next small piece in the Yakima River Basin salmon recovery puzzle.

An estimated 25 miles of prime fish habitat will be opened to migratory fish in the creek’s upper reaches by the spring of 2014, culminating an effort that has taken a decade.

The project took a major step forward this week when a state board that provide grants for fish habitat improvements awarded nearly $575,000 to remove small irrigation diversions in the creek and provide additional flows for migratory fish, including Steelhead, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Matching funds from federal agencies pushes the project cost to more than $900,000.

“We are proud as a conservation district to move this project forward because it doesn’t impair agriculture,” said Mike Tobin, manager of the North Yakima Conservation District and sponsor of the project. “It keeps agriculture whole and, at the same time, provides tremendous instream flow benefits for fish. That is what the system needs to maximize its potential to produce salmonids.”

Coho and chinook salmon species also are expected to benefit. Those species and steelhead have been found in Cowiche Creek.

Some details remain to be worked out, including an agreement for the Yakima-Tieton Irrigation District to deliver irrigation water to Cowiche Creek users through its enclosed delivery system. But district Manager Rick Dieker said his board has made a commitment to help the project succeed.

One of many partners on the project is the nationwide conservation group Trout Unlimited. Washington Director Lisa Pelly said Cowiche Creek, as a mid-basin tributary to the Naches River, is a key piece of the effort to restore fish.

“Cowiche Creek is one of the major tributaries. I don’t know if anyone has said the number of fish we can potentially see. But it will be significant once we get this project on the road,” said Pelly, whose group works to conserve and restore North American trout and salmon fisheries.

Tobin said tributaries like Cowiche Creek are key because they provide the places juvenile fish need to rear and feed before they make the trek to the ocean.

The Cowiche Creek effort is one of several awarded funds this week by the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, established by the state Legislature in 1999 to provide grants to restore fish habitat. In all, seven projects will receive $1.2 million in state and federal funds for efforts to improve areas of the flood plains of the Yakima and Naches rivers in Yakima and Kittitas counties. The money also will pay for a study on Gold Creek, near Snoqualmie Pass, to improve habitat for Bull Trout, also a threatened species.

Yakima-Tieton will receive funding to begin an assessment to upgrade the district’s 100-year-old canal in light of pending agreement to supply irrigation water to the Cowiche Creek users.

All of the projects were reviewed through the Yakima Basin Fish and Wildlife Recovery Board, a consortium of counties, cities and the Yakama Nation, which made recommendations to the state recovery board.

Cowiche Creek is the largest of the seven — and the most complicated.

In its essence, the plan involves Trout Unlimited using grant funds from the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to purchase the 1,580 acre-foot water right of the members of the Cowiche Creek Water Users Association on the south fork and main-stem Cowiche Creek, which are more than 140 years old. The right will be placed in the state Department of Ecology’s trust water-rights program and will remain in the creek to support instream flows.

Ecology will issue a new water right for the Cowiche Creek irrigators with the same priority date as their existing right. The new right will be withdrawn at the Yakima-Tieton headworks on the Tieton River and delivered through the district’s piped delivery system.

The Salmon Recovery Funding Board grant will be used to install pipes connected to the district system to deliver water to the Cowiche Creek users. Tobin said the work likely will begin in next fall when the irrigation season ends.

Two unscreened irrigation diversions in the creek will be removed or disabled, allowing water to flow freely in the creek and providing unimpeded access for fish to creek habitat.

It is in tributaries like Cowiche Creek where much of the story of salmon recovery will be written.

“They must be able to produce the steelhead. These are the areas where these young juvenile fish have to live for two years before they go out to the ocean,” Tobin said. “The food and cover are in the tributaries. Without them, the fish won’t get to the ocean.”

• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or dlester@yakimaherald.com.