Nelson Dam

FILE — The Naches River flows through the Nelson Dam area Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, in Yakima, Washington.

As Yakima residents know, water issues here in the West can be contentious — discussions can quickly become arguments. We’re now seeing something quite different in Yakima County. We’re finding some consensus on water issues, with conversations becoming easier as we start from points of agreement. This puts us at the brink of an important success.

For 15 years the city and county have collaborated to retool our water infrastructure. To conserve water, the city replaced a leaky, century-old network of irrigation pipes made of wood staves. This lets irrigators receive the same level of service even as we reduce river water diversion by two-thirds. To reduce flood risk along the Naches River, the county purchased lands and set levees back from the main channel. This reestablished broad flood plains that help avert catastrophe at high flows.

The key next step is removing Nelson Dam, the city’s 8-foot-high concrete diversion structure spanning the Naches just above the U.S. Highway 12 bridge. The dam often delays or prevents salmon and steelhead from reaching 309 miles of prime habitat and can kill out-migrating smolts. It slows the river above the dam, causing sediment to settle and raising the river bottom; the shallower river increases flooding at high flows and was a factor in past floods. The altered river also led to changes in the Flood Insurance Risk Map, which drives up insurance costs for existing structures.

This project will also consolidate multiple instream diversions into one, finish re-piping efforts, and restore the riverbed. Water customer needs will still be met, and the changes will improve fish passage, restore habitat, reduce flood risk, lower maintenance costs and increase water conservation. A new county park will include a boat ramp, offering better and safer river access for rafters and kayakers.

This offers an immediate economic boost. The $24.7 million project will result in 135 construction jobs and 436 jobs overall. With final funding in hand, work could begin this spring.

It has statewide importance — it is ranked No. 1 on a list of 88 projects by Washington’s Brian Abbot Fish Barrier Removal Board.

There is a catch. The city and county have both spent millions thus far but are still short of the necessary total. For this key step, the city has committed $7.5 million and we have commitments for another $8.5 million. As the final piece of the puzzle, we are requesting $8.2 million from the state’s Capital Budget. To succeed, we’ll need help from state Sens. Curtis King and Jim Honeyford and state Reps. Gina Mosbrucker, Bruce Chandler, Jeremie Dufault and Chris Corry.

If the price tag seems high, we note that we’ll need to pay sooner or later. The dam is in disrepair and must ultimately be repaired or removed — at great cost. If we wait, we may need to add the cost of cleanup and repair for future flooding that may have been avoided.

This work unfolds in the context of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. That collaborative effort involving irrigators, environmentalists, state and federal agencies and the Yakama Nation is a brilliant program to restore our region’s magnificent salmon runs. Members have found ways to step back from assumptions and entrenched positions to see common goals and find agreement on best uses. It is this dialog that puts us at the brink of success, and it gives us great hope that funding for Nelson Dam removal will be included in the next Capital Budget.