For over a century, humans have attempted to tame the Yakima River to play by their rules. Things are changing, however, and with a recent acquisition of legislative funding, Kittitas County will work to restore the river to a more natural function.

The county recently received a grant of just over $4.2 million through capital budget funding for a segment of the Yakima River Floodplain and Habit Acquisition Project. The money will be used to work on mitigating floodplain risk on the Upper Yakima River. It is part of the larger Floodplains by Design project, which helps seek funding for individual projects within the state that aim to mitigate floodplains. In doing so, the Floodplains by Design project aims to protect homes, farms and businesses, increase outdoor recreation, make farmland more productive and increase habitat for wildlife such as salmon.

The Kittitas County project was ranked second in this year’s funding proposals, making it a prime candidate for selection. The county purchased a 40-acre plot of land on Ringer Loop Road in 2017, putting into place the framework for the project. With the funds, the county plans to purchase two separate parcels south of Ellensburg near the Hansen Pits totaling 413 acres. Much of the acreage is contiguous Yakima River floodplain and will prevent residential development on 90 subdivided acres situated in floodplain areas.

Kittitas County Public Works Director Mark Cook said when the land purchases are complete, it will essentially allow for contiguous government ownership of the riverfront from the Hansen Pit area to the Ringer Loop parcel. He said one parcel will be purchased by the end of 2019, with the second sale being complete by the end of 2020. The two purchases will take up the entire $4.2 million received in the grant.

Cook said the county has made a commitment to the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan Habitat Subcommittee to take a look at the avulsion potential at Hansen Pits. Avulsion is the separation of land, often as a result of flooding or the change of course in a river.

“We know the river’s eating into that levy,” he said. “That levy has been abandoned. It’s not being managed. At some point, the river will avulse into the pits. What we want to understand is where it’s likely to go.”

Cook said they believe the river will likely avulse into land the county is currently leasing from Twin City Foods, which makes the 413-acre purchase important.

“At the core of all this planning was the recognition that Twin City Foods is a very valued employer in town,” he said. “We have a great working relationship with those folks.”

Cook said the company needs land to deposit wash affluent, a byproduct of rinsing produce before processing. He said the company needs upland property to do that, as it cannot be deposited into the river due to water quality issues. By depositing the affluent on land, the water soaks into the ground and helps recharge the water table.

“In this acquisition, we are not only getting the land they need for future expansion, but we’re getting some very critical habitat restoration opportunities in the same acquisition.”

MULTIPLE PATHS

Although there are multiple possible avulsion paths that the river could take through the land the county is purchasing, Cook said they are comprehensively planning for any path the river may take in that reach.

“That is somewhat unique in the state,” he said. “I think that’s why you see us score so well in this program.”

Kittitas County Water Resources Manager Arden Thomas said that essentially it is recognizing that it will be a losing battle to keep the river on its current course.

“The question is how do we give the river a little bit of space, better predict where it is going to go and identify those key locations that we need to protect,” she said. “That’s what we got going earlier on with the Ringer Loop acquisition. It was going to be a losing battle. We could throw a lot of money at it and still not be successful at trying to maintain that road. That said, we still need to understand the risk further downstream and to manage for that. Further upstream, doing the exact same thing, acquiring that land enables us a little bit of buffer so we can allow for some channel migration, but still kind of be planning for the infrastructure and protecting those areas that we want to protect.”

Now that the 413 acres are slated for purchase, Cook said the next goal is to understand what impact the river is going in the area of Hansen Pits. He said that understanding will drive the conversation with both Twin City Foods and the City of Ellensburg about potential recreational opportunities on the parcels. The county will conduct a river avulsion study, similar to one conducted for the 40-acre parcel purchased in 2017. He said they plan on conducting that study as soon as the land is purchased.

“We need to understand where the river’s going to go,” he said. “Once we know where the river’s going to go, then we can start our restoration efforts on the rest of the property.”

An example of restoration plans is the possibility of creating side channels in the river to promote wildlife habitat, while also providing more water storage. Another possibility is creating engineered wood jams that will stay in place in the river. Thomas said they can be an important tool to manage the energy associated with large-scale flooding events, as well as helping to provide further habitat.

“There are tools that we have to have more control and more predictability about what the river response will be,” she said.

Cook said he sees the potential for a recreational corridor on the parcels, although it would most likely come during the later stages of the development plan.

“Essentially we could go from Rinehart Park all the way down to Ringer Loop, which would be huge for this area,” he said. “That’s long-term, and that probably comes on the backside of everything else. As we’re trying to improve habitat, we don’t want people stomping around.”

As the plan develops, Cook said he sees the river in this stretch transitioning from human control back to nature’s original plan.

“In this county, what we do is we stack our banks with large riffraff and old cars,” he said. “We force the river to stay where we want the river to be. That’s our history. This is the first time where the county is starting to recognize levies really aren’t our future. Our future is to plan people out of flood risk, not let them go there. Unfortunately, we’ve been fighting this river for so long that we’ve all gotten this attitude that we have to continue to fight. We don’t. It’s in all of our interests to let the river be a river, and we need to learn how to live with that.”

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