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Originally published Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 9:36 AM

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Salmon recovering in Yakima River basin

Biologist Mark Johnston pulls a steelhead from a holding tank at Roza Dam, takes a DNA sample, measures the fish and tags it before sending it on its way.

Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. —

Biologist Mark Johnston pulls a steelhead from a holding tank at Roza Dam, takes a DNA sample, measures the fish and tags it before sending it on its way.

The information is then logged into a computer and used to track the steelhead until it spawns somewhere upriver.

This is one of the Yakima River basin's four major fish monitoring stations. They track and improve fish survival at dams, and they wouldn't be here if not for the once- controversial federal court case the became known as the Quackenbush Decision.

"If it weren't for Quackenbush, there wouldn't be any fish in the river," Johnston said.

The ruling - which marks its 30th anniversary this year - for the first time assured that water would keep flowing in the Yakima basin during winter months and is now credited with the steady comeback of the region's once-decimated spring salmon and steelhead.

But at the time, it was at the heart of a sometimes bitter struggle between angry farmers who feared they'd lose everything and the Yakama Nation, steadfast in its effort to preserve spring salmon, which is at the center of tribal culture.

"It was pretty heated, pretty confrontational," recalls Ron Van Gundy, who managed the Roza Irrigation District at that time. "It was a scary time for a lot of people, not knowing whether they were going to have enough water when everything was said and done. It was not a good time."

Before the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush, meetings and court hearing were marred by angry protests, recalls Johnson Meninick, then-chairman of the Yakama Tribal Council.

He remembers having to be escorted with fish biologists and other tribal representatives into a meeting in Seattle to avoid threatening demonstrators.

"Oh, they raised hell with us," he said. "They were trying to beat us up before testifying or something. We had some irate citizens."

And testifying in the case wasn't much easier, said fish biologist Bob Tuck, who managed the tribe's fisheries program at that time.

"I spent two days on the stand up there, testifying and being ripped apart by the irrigation attorney," he said with a chuckle. "They weren't too fond of me at that point."

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Prior to the ruling, each October irrigators would tightly close water storage gates in the Yakima basin, saving all the water they could for the next irrigation season.

River water would recede, leaving salmon eggs exposed, said Meninick, now manager of the tribe's cultural resources program.

"They left our fish dry," he said.

The attitude at the time was that most of the basin's fish runs were already wiped out, and there wasn't much left to worry about, Tuck said.

"So the gates were closed and if that dried up the fish, well, that was too bad," he said.

There were only about 300 anadromous fish returning to the river at that time, and they were being trucked from the dam at Prosser to Cle Elum, past the low water stretch of the river.

"Both the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife had literally closed offices several years before that in Eastern Washington and decided it's not worth the time and money, because society determined to use rivers for dams and irrigation and fish was not in the picture," Tuck said.

But that attitude would soon change.

In February 1979, Tuck was floating the river, looking for salmon nests. State fish authorities at that time were only doing spot surveys on the Yakima. But Tuck stumbled on about 60 nests in a six-mile stretch between the city of Cle Elum and the Teanaway River, and area that had not been surveyed.

"The thought was if they close the gates, they're all going to die," he recalled. "They were in imminent danger if the Bureau of Reclamation lowers the water, and that started the train rolling."

The discovery came six years after the landmark - and enormously controversial - ruling by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt that gave tribes competing with sportsman and commercial fisherman half of each harvestable fish run and mandated habitat protection for fish.

"So we had all these things going on at the same time - we had quite a bundle going on," said Meninick, who often testified in those court proceedings. "So when we ended up in federal court in Spokane, we were able to succeed to have our (salmon eggs) watered with minimum flows."

But devising a plan that would keep farmers supplied with irrigation water and leave enough water in the basin for fish runs meant bringing together two groups that didn't get along.

"It was a difficult time as far as living in the Yakima Valley because there was a lot of fear, a lot of unknowns," Tuck said. "People didn't know how much water would be diverted for fish; we hadn't done this before. There was no system in place to talk about stream flows.

"We were really in uncharted water, literally and figuratively."

One of the first changes was what's known as the flip-flip, which was implemented late the following summer.

Under that system, heavy flows of water are released down the Tieton and Naches rivers from an irrigation reservoir west of Yakima, while water flows are kept low in the upper reaches of the Yakima River.

The alternating flows accommodate fish spawning at different times in different areas of the basin.

"We all had to figure out how to operate," Van Gundy said. "It was a management and learning experience and adjustment. We had to learn to operate with the fish in mind."

That first year drained an enormous amount of water from the system, hitting some farmers hard and leaving sour feelings, he said.

Since then, the process has been refined, he said.

"We are years and years past that - you're talking history that's far different than today," he said. "It's completely different. We've learned that we're all here to stay and that we need to all work together."

But the ruling did more than regulate flows to benefit fish. It created a fish management industry in the Yakima basin.

Both the state and federal departments of Fish and Wildlife reopened offices in Yakima, and an advisory board of fish biologists was created to represent the tribe, irrigators and both the state and federal fish agencies.

"It opened the door not only in terms of forcing the Valley and those who manage the water to put fish into the equation, but it also opened the eyes of the state and federal (fish) agencies to (the fact) that the tribe was not going to give up on their fishing rights," Tuck said. "It really forced some re-evaluation of where they were going to put their resources."

Each spring, returning steelhead and salmon begin making their way through the Roza Dam, climbing a winding concrete fish ladder that leads to a holding tank in a large metal building where biologists gather and record their information.

Outside, large screens keep juvenile salmon and steelhead from entering the irrigation system and direct them into a fish passage that bypasses the dam and spits them out down river.

Fish runs have steadily increased over the past three decades, from 300 to more than 17,000 spring chinook alone expected to return to the Yakima River this year, Tuck said.

An additional 200 or so steelhead are expected to pass the Roza Dam this year, Johnston said.

Three other Yakima River dams - Sunnyside, Wapato, and Easton - also have fish monitors, improved fish ladders and screens.

Hatcheries have also been erected to help restore steelhead - still listed as endangered - and spring chinook and sockeye.

It's all an effort to correct environmental damages and put the land back in its proper order, Meninick said.

"Everything on this land is important," he says. "There is nothing that is unimportant."

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Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com

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