What was once a feedlot and cattle processing plant on the south side of Ellensburg is in the process of being transformed into a haven for salmonids and other animal species.

The Schaake Habitat Improvement Project is coordinated by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is working with a group of over 40 stakeholders to restore approximately two miles of the Yakima River. The bureau purchased the 280-acre property in 2003 for approximately $3.2 million. Goals of the project primarily focus on habitat restoration, along with improving floodplain utilization by opening approximately 130 floodplain acres along the two miles. The project will maintain flood protection for Interstate 90, the city of Ellensburg’s wastewater treatment facility, existing railroad connections and Wilson Creek.

WORK COMPLETED THIS SUMMER

Phase 1 of the project, which began in spring 2019 focused on construction-related projects that didn’t involve the water aspects of the plan. Temporary and permanent access roads were built, with the permanent roads giving access to BOR, Bonneville Power Administration and the Kittitas County Public Utility District. Three of the northernmost floodplain areas on the property were excavated, with approximately 90 percent of the original levees being removed. Two sections of levy at high-velocity areas of the river were kept for use.

Crews are currently in the process of initiating revegetation on the property, prepping seedbeds and installing native grass seed. BOR Project Manager Jeanne Demorest said crews were able to keep on track for the phase with minimal hang ups over the course of the summer.

“It went great,” she said. “Nothing more than the 50-mile an hour wind we get in Ellensburg. We didn’t really have a lot of challenges this year. It was just a matter of moving a lot of material.”

Construction has wrapped up for the season, with all the heavy equipment being moved offsite. Demorest said the revegetation work will most likely continue on the property until November.

“Overall, revegetation for the project itself is at least a five-year process,” she said. “We’re just starting now.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Demorest said the second season, which will begin in spring 2020 will involve some of the most exciting work. Next season will mark the construction of habitat features within the project, with two large-sized side channels being constructed.

Large wood will be placed in the floodplain to create roughness, slowing water down during high-flow events. Demorest said the wood is being sourced from another Bureau of Reclamation project, the Cle Elum Fish Passage Facilities and Fish Reintroduction Project.

“It’s kind of neat that we could utilize the wood that had to be removed for fish passage for this restoration project,” she said.

Large wood structures will also be constructed at the mouths of the side channels to create long-term stability. Additional finish work and revegetation will wrap up next season’s work. Demorest anticipates work to begin as early as May, with construction most likely ramping up in June. She said construction work will likely continue onsite until the end of October 2020.

As work gets completed next season with the wood placement and as the side channels are opened to the river next fall, Demorest said she expects to see positive results as the river adjusts to its new course. She said each season will see further benefits to the work being done at the site.

“Over the course of the next few years, as vegetation comes in, we’ll start to see the habitat improve as nature does its work basically,” she said.

Although the site is currently closed to public use and will continue to be closed through the construction and revegetation process, Demorest said talks have taken place with the city of Ellensburg regarding a potential partnership that could result in a trail through the property that would facilitate public usage in the future.

“We’re definitely considering that,” she said. “I think we would do some preplanning and scoping with the city potentially at the end of next year just to get started and look at what the possibilities are.”

As the purpose of the project focuses on habitat restoration and off-channel rearing habitat for salmonids, Demorest said the BOR needs to focus on that first before any sort of recreational plan could be developed.

“No decision has been made yet,” she said.

PROVIDING HABITAT FOR YEARS TO COME

Demorest said the primary focus of the project is on providing the side channel rearing habitat for salmonids, which she said will provide multiple benefits for the species.

“That’s something that there’s not a lot of in this stretch of the river,” she said. “It really helps with their survival over the long term if they have a place to go that’s slower water and calmer so they can feed and grow so that when they go back into the main river they’re big enough to deal with the challenges they face there.”

Beyond salmonids, Demorest said she sees potential benefits for multiple other species. She witnessed a bald eagle on the site during her last visit, and said that osprey, elk and mule deer also have been seen using the property. Other species of amphibians and reptiles are also seen at the site.

“There’s a lot of smaller mammals,” she said. “There are a lot of bird species that use this particular stretch of the river as well, adult raptors and migratory birds.”

When the restoration nears completion, Demorest said she expects to see an increase of animals utilizing the site. As one of the largest river restoration projects in the Yakima Basin, she said it has been remarkable that so many groups were able to work together to achieve positive results.

“I think it’s a great thing for the Yakima Basin,” she said.

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