For decades, Jim Lust started the growing season repairing pumps and rebuilding the diversion in Cowiche Creek, which provides water for about 250 broad valley acres of hay and pasture.
This year, he’ll need only to turn open some valves.
Sounds simple, but it’s actually the culmination of a 10-year project led by the North Yakima County Conservation District and Trout Unlimited to get landowners along Cowiche Creek to move their water rights to allow removal of two diversions from the creek and increase the summer flow so that steelhead can once again spawn in the creek.
“We needed to get out of the creek, for the fish benefits,” Lust said, explaining that many summers when he and his neighbors were withdrawing water, the creek could get dry enough to walk up it without getting his feet wet.
The solution was to leave 7.9 cubic feet per second of water in Cowiche Creek — enough to irrigate almost 400 acres — and switch the landowners to withdrawing their water from the Tieton River.
That water will be run through the Yakima-Tieton Irrigation District’s pressurized pipe system, which conveniently already serves the surrounding areas.
“It’s certainly going to be beneficial to us, too,” said Lust, a retired Yakima County Superior Court judge. “We get clean water, we get pressurized water, you can’t beat that.”
Lisa Pelly, Washington water projects director for Trout Unlimited, said small tributaries like the Cowiche are key to recovery efforts for the steelhead, which is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, because they provide spawning habitat.
With this project, the fish biologists found that taking a little bit of water out of the Tieton River would make a big habitat improvement in the Cowiche Creek, she said.
“I’m thankful that we can do these small projects where you can see a big difference in the small tributaries,” Pelly said. “To get steelhead off the endangered species list, it’s going to take projects like this in a lot of creeks.”
Mike Tobin, director of the North Yakima County Conservation District, said the reason the project was so successful was because they found a benefit for everyone — the fish, the farmers and the irrigation district.
The landowners, 16 in all, were on board from the get-go, Lust said, as long as they could retain their full water rights and not add extra costs.
Instead of paying for pumping electricity and repairs, Lust said, he and his neighbors will have a contract to pay YTID for delivery. Costs are similar, but it is way less work every spring, he said.
“It’s still their water rights, but they are going to pay us to deliver water to them,” said YTID manager Rick Dieker. “We’ll calculate costs on a flat rate basis similar to our users.”
Dieker said the YTID hopes to be able to support similar conservation projects in the future.
“We’re involved because we understand that endangered species effect all of us,” Dieker said. “If we can make our irrigation district part of a long-term fish recovery program, that opens doors to more funding and opportunities down the road.”
He said this project is just another example, like the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, of how irrigators and conservation groups are now working together instead of turning to lawyers.
Started long before the Integrated Plan, this $671,000 project was funded largely through state salmon recovery funding. That covered the legal costs of getting the water rights transferred, the habitat research and the actual construction.
This month, crews are laying almost 20,000 feet of new pipeline. Tobin estimates the work will be done by mid-March and ready to go for the start of the irrigation season April 1.
“After 10 years, it’s good to see that excavator out there,” Tobin said. “To leave this much water in-stream in this critical watershed — this project is going to be like adding 3 inches of frosting to an already great cake. It’s going to springboard (steelhead) recovery. That’s why everyone is so excited.”