A water diversion point in the Naches River near U.S. 12 and Powerhouse Road can no longer be called the Nelson Dam.

The Nelson project — or even just Nelson — will suffice as work continues on the $18.1 million effort to improve fish passage and recreation in the waterway, city of Yakima Water and Irrigation Manager David Brown said.

Since the last update, water has been turned back to the center of the riverbed, where it now flows through rocks and boulders set in the silt.

Contractors also have been building a concrete sluiceway to divert water for irrigation, Brown said.

“We’ve still got to serve water to the citizens of Yakima, so that’s where we’ll take the water in,” he said.

A new screening structure will then be added at the mouth of the channel to keep fish out, he said.

The old fish ladder will also be removed soon. That piece is the last of the spoil that needs to be hauled away, and then the roughened channel can be built out a little more, Brown said.

“The biggest part is you’re going to see equipment out in the middle of the river setting rocks and building (that roughened channel),” he said. “We call it a roughened channel, but we’re really building river.”

The $18.1 million dam removal and replacement is part of a larger public works project, anticipated to cost about $26 million, which was initiated by the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

Nelson Project

Work continues on the former site of the Nelson Dam Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Yakima, Wash.

Brown said the next phase of the plan includes installing pipes to carry water into Yakima and consolidating several smaller irrigation diversions. The Old Union and Fruitvale diversions downstream of the Nelson project will be removed to help restore the floodplain.

“That will make this all a little more fish friendly, make this all the new updated system that works like it’s supposed to work,” Brown said.

A park will eventually be developed downstream, and work also will be possible along Cowiche Creek, he said. The project plan called for removing a seasonal partial fish barrier at the mouth of the creek, adding 29 additional miles of unimpeded fish passage.

“There’ll be boat passage, there’ll be fishing opportunities,” he said. “There’ll be lots of things that will happen over the next four or five years.”

The city served as the primary source of funding for the project, providing about $10.8 million, and another $4.4 million came from Floodplains by Design, a grant program through the state Department of Ecology. The state’s Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board contributed more than $4 million, and other sources of funding for the project included Yakima County, Resources Legacy Fund and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Nelson Project

The fish ladder at the former site of the Nelson Dam is pictured Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Yakima, Wash. The fish ladder will be removed as part of the Nelson Project.

The dam was built in the 1920s to divert irrigation water for Yakima and the Naches-Cowiche Irrigation Association, and the original design did not allow for any fish passage.

In addition to improving fish passage, the project will help habitat, improve water supply reliability and increase stream conveyance to decrease flooding risks for nearby landowners. Over the years, the dam has held back sediment and silt, raising the river bed and contributing to flooding.

The project is expected to improve fishing and open up a significant section of the Naches River for boating and other recreation.

Contact Kate Smith at katesmith@yakimaherald.com.

Yakima City Government Reporter

Kate Smith is the city government & politics reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republic. She is passionate about connecting people to policy in storytelling that is thorough, fair and compassionate. In Yakima, she is following local elections, city council, budgets & audits, public health, housing & homelessness, public safety, utilities and more. 

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