For the past 15 years, a team of Yakama Nation scientists and engineers has been working to remedy a number of long-term issues with the century-old Wapato Irrigation Project (WIP), which diverts roughly 650,000 acre-feet of water per year to farmers and landowners on the reservation in Central Washington.

The tribe’s work is far from done, but their efforts have been gaining momentum since 2019, when the WIP received authorization for $75 million as part of a larger federal legislation for the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

With guidance from the Irrigation Training and Resource Center at California Polytechnic State University, the Yakama Nation and WIP have made significant progress on a plan to conserve 165,000 acre-feet of water per year throughout the 1.13-million-acre reservation. Combined with two other tribal initiatives, the Yakama Nation has enacted a three-pronged approach to water management.

The three interconnected projects — WIP modernization and conservation, managed aquifer recharge and Toppenish Creek restoration — are designed to help the tribe become more resilient to climate change and drought while also preserving cultural foods, improving in-stream flows and restoring fish habitats.

Photos courtesy of the Yakama Nation

“Conservation is critical for the improvement of WIP, but we also need to plan for the changes that it will bring,” said Danielle Squeochs, a Yakama Nation hydrogeologist and engineer who is leading the managed aquifer recharge portion of the project. “We know that conservation will likely reduce the amount of water recharging the aquifers, and that could be extremely detrimental if we don’t plan for it.”

The tribe hopes to eventually procure an additional 50,000 acre-feet of water through the aquifer recharge effort, which will create more reserves to service ecosystem needs, in addition to providing more water to the WIP for irrigation and storage purposes.

“We’re also trying to use the water for cultural foods, in-stream flows and to restore systems that have been altered,” Squeochs said. “We could potentially use it for irrigated agriculture as well. But what’s important to remember is that none of these three plans stands alone. They all complement one another, and they all have to be managed together.”

Squeochs’ colleague, Richard Dills, who oversees the tribe’s WIP modernization and conservation efforts, also stressed the importance of merging all three elements. If executed properly, the plan will help the Yakama Nation — and, by extension, the entire region — accomplish the shared goals of conserving water, storing water and improving fish habitats.

“We are trying to conserve water, but we also understand the need to allocate it appropriately and reliably,” Dills said. “Being able to provide a reliable water source is critical because that directly relates to the income of our members. There’s a direct relationship between water reliability and agricultural revenue. All of this happens while providing water for fisheries, so we have to walk a fine line.”

Once more water becomes available, Dills sees the potential for more tribal members to begin growing lucrative crops such as cherries, apples and hops, along with traditional crops like corn and alfalfa. But, most of all, he would like to see the return of centuries-old fish passages for salmon, steelhead and Pacific lamprey.

“I hope the work we are doing will help bring back some of the traditional native food sources, while also reducing waste and allowing us to conserve our resources properly,” he said. “We believe all of these goals are achievable under our current plan, and we feel like we are doing our part to make the world a better place for our members, and the region as a whole.”

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This story appeared in the Capital Press in February 2022.