The banding together of several local, state and federal agencies is resulting in the rescue this summer and fall of seven small, fish-bearing creeks in Kittitas County that often go dry or nearly so at the peak of summer's heat.

Rescue means water is still flowing in the streams during this summer of drought and high heat, keeping fish habitat alive and streamside plants green and cooling the existing natural flows.

If water gets too warm and too low, migrating fish won't go up stream to spawn, and young fish won't go downstream. Low water levels also make fish more accessible to predators.

Most of the creeks in the rescue effort are in Upper Kittitas County, but in Lower County, Manastash Creek southwest of Ellensburg also is part of the program and is getting a good flow from water released from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs in Upper County and carried by Kittitas Reclamation District canals.

Where the creeks cross Kittitas Reclamation District irrigation canals, water is diverted from the canals into the streams without reducing water that should go to irrigators.

The bureau's water is filtering through the creeks and back into the Yakima River, instead of going directly into the river from the reservoirs farther upstream, said Sherry Swanson, manager of the Manastash Creek restoration project who works for the Kittitas County Conservation District.

“To see that water in the Manastash now, when we’ve got a drought going on, well, really, it’s something exciting,” said Swanson recently while surveying the creek where it goes under Cove Road west of Ellensburg. “This is all because of a huge partnership working together. The partnerships are working successfully.”

Pilot program

Urban Eberhart, manager of the Kittitas Reclamation District, said the pilot program is to have the nearly 60,000-acre irrigation district carry and divert the water into the seven creeks started June 10.

“This water is, basically, just passing through our system as it continues down stream in the Yakima (River) for irrigators farther downstream in the Yakima Valley,” Eberhart said while at the edge of Manastash Creek with Swanson and Conservation District Manager Anna Lael. “It doesn’t use up any of the KRD’s (water) allocation.”

The other creeks getting pass-through water include Tucker, Big, Little, Spexarth, Tillman and Taneum.

“This couldn’t have worked without a lot of cooperation by many agencies and good planning and on-the-ground projects with the conservation district and the KRD,” Eberhart said.

One of the byproducts benefiting the KRD carrying the bureau water is that it allows canals and laterals to run with more water, making delivery easier and more efficient in this drought year.

The summer drought from the extreme lack of winter snowpack in the Cascades has caused the KRD to only get 44 percent of its normal supply for its customers.

Running with lower water levels in the system due to the drought creates operational problems because it takes good flows of water to effectively move water destined to customers.

Ironically, the water diversion program this year works better than in a year with better water supplies because KRD canal flows are low due to the drought. If canals were full in a year of normal water supplies, there wouldn’t be as much capacity in the canals to carry the extra bureau water destined for the creeks.

KCCD taking the lead

To understand why the pilot diversion program is working, Swanson said a look back in time is necessary.

The Kittitas County Conservation District became the lead agency in 2007 with the daunting task to help restore Manastash Creek flows, streamside habitat and fish runs but keeping water going to irrigators with water rights at the same time.

The lower part of the Manastash, as it approaches going into the Yakima River, for many years before that always dried up in summer at the peak of the irrigation season as more water was drawn off than was naturally produced farther upstream.

The restoration effort started six years before 2007, involving negotiations and planning among private landowners; the Yakama Nation; irrigation entities, private-nonprofit environmental; conservation and outdoor recreation advocacy groups; the state departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife; federal fish and wildlife departments; and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The conservation district, with a variety of funding sources, has taken out fish-passage barriers, put in fish-protecting fish screens, consolidated irrigation diversion structures, and has boosted water supplies by helping irrigators change from running water down rills in their field to using water-saving overhead sprinklers.

Going to sprinklers not only conserves water but reduces sediment loss and protects water quality.

There’s also been assistance by groups and agencies in the restoration work — including Trout Unlimited and the Washington Water Trust — to purchase unused water rights associated with lands along the Manastash.

By purchasing the rights and not using them to consume water, the water stays in stream.

Swanson said more work on the Manastash Creek restoration project is pending, including the removal and replacement of the old Reed diversion with a redesigned, water-efficient and fish-friendly system. This likely will be in summer-fall 2016

Integrated plan helps, too

Another water supply boosting effort targeting Manastash Creek was the nearly $4 million KRD and Bureau of Reclamation project in 2013-14 to turn 3.2 miles of open irrigation canal into pressurized pipeline four miles southwest of Ellensburg.

The project was the first, on-the-ground work related to the Yakima River basin integrated plan, the estimated $5 billion, 30-year project to stabilize and boost water supplies in the three-county basin, improve fish passage and ecosystems and increase on-farm water conservation.

The Kittitas County Conservation District, in cooperation with the KRD, ran its own pressurized, irrigation pipeline for 1.6 miles in the same KRD trench.

The closed, pressurized pipelines mean more water will stay in the stream because less water will be used for irrigation and less lost through evaporation and seepage from open canals used to deliver irrigation water.

The two, new pipelines were operational prior to the 2014 irrigation season.

Eberhart, looking over the water in Manastash Creek in late June near Cove Road, said without the pipeline the Bureau of Reclamation reservoir water couldn’t be diverted into Manastash Creek.

“I’ve read on some state government blogs that some are saying the program (to divert water to creeks) is an example of the KRD saving Manastash Creek this summer,” Eberhart said. “Certainly it reflects that many, many people and a diversity of organizations have come together to make this work.”

Swanson said it was gratifying to actually see water in the creek at this time in the summer, the result of “so many years of hard work by so many people.”

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