The Naches River flows by the Nelson Dam near South Naches Road in Yakima, Wash. on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.

The city’s long-awaited Nelson Dam project should improve fishing and open up a significant section of the Naches River for recreation near Yakima.

City council members unanimously approved a resolution to authorize an agreement for the $18.1 million construction project Tuesday night, setting the stage for work to begin later this month.

Yakima River Runners president Michael Aquiliano said the project will create valuable opportunities on an easily accessible class 2 stretch of the Naches River.

“What’s even probably more exciting for all of us in the whitewater community is that just below Nelson (the county) acquired some property and ... there should be some river access there,” Aquiliano said. “I think that’s going to create a really nice opportunity for local boaters and standup paddleboarders just to get out on the river after work and have some fun.”

Yakima County water resources strategic manager Joel Freudenthal said the park won’t be created for a few years, until after phase 2 of the Nelson Dam project. That’s scheduled to start in 2024 and will include adding a new city pipeline and removing portions of the existing pipeline, so some of the technical surveys could be used to save money on building a park.

Limited funds for maintenance or other infrastructure may result in a simple, open-space park providing river access. However, Freudenthal said it’s possible sports fields or other amenities could be added, especially if private money is added to the mix.

Safety’s one of the top priorities for the city as it begins construction on a project water and irrigation manager Dave Brown said officials have talked about since 1997. Replacing the concrete dam with a roughened channel should allow people to boat all the way from Naches to Union Gap.

Yakima fire deputy chief Jim Rodriguez said anyone trying to go over the dam tends to get stuck in the loop created by the undertow, like a washing machine. Over the years Rodriguez said emergency personnel made at least one rescue, but much more often they’re recovering bodies, although it’s often impossible to tell if the victims were alive when they reached the dam.

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“That’s why they’re so extremely dangerous,” Rodriguez said. “Even with a lifejacket on, when the water’s flowing heavy, it’s not survivable.”

He’s confident the dam will become much safer when it’s replaced by a roughened channel, although he still recommends against trying to go over it without proper training. Rodriguez also believes some rebar and snags in that section of river could be dangerous, although Freudenthal said most significant obstacles will be flushed away in the narrow channel or removed when the city eliminates its diversions downstream of Nelson Dam.

Aquiliano spoke with the city multiple times during the planning process and felt his input was heard, noting the inclusion of recreational benefits in the city’s promotional material. He’s eager to see all types of activities, from tubing to drift boats, out on the river and no longer forced to exit at the Rowe public access point near Naches or further upstream.

The project, which nonprofit American Rivers heralded as ”a potential model for Western dam removal,” should also establish more of a sport fishery on the Naches. Freudenthal said the dam’s fish ladders don’t allow juveniles to pass and even adult species struggle to go over the dam during certain parts of the year.

“Right now fish congregate below the dam and get stuck trying to get over the dam and people will take advantage of that and go out and snag some fish,” Brown said during an interview in March on the city’s public affairs channel. “This will stop that.”

The reintroduction of summer chinook could add to the fishing possibilities, which will also include improved passage for spring chinook, steelhead and coho. Rodriguez said he already sees fishing downstream of Nelson Dam, but the ability to boat through the reach offers a new element.

Vehicle traffic’s expected to increase, sometimes considerably, on west Powerhouse Road as trucks move thousands of tons of rock during construction, which is scheduled to take place between July 16 and February 28 to ensure it won’t affect critical irrigation infrastructure. When the project’s finished in the winter of 2022-23, the only traffic increase will be on the water.

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe

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