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Less can be more: Nelson Dam offers infrastructure vision

Our nation has a long history of investing in infrastructure that serves our business and personal interests and supports our communities, including roads, bridges, power grids and other infrastructure that serve all Americans. These critical components of our society are not one-time purchases. They must be maintained and updated over the years, or they can become outdated and no longer serve their original purpose. Over the decades, we’ve also learned a lot about the unintended impacts of our infrastructure. America’s dams and levees have helped us manage our waterways, protect against flooding, and provide water storage for domestic and irrigation uses, but while every new project was constructed for a good reason at the time, some impacted the health and functionality of our rivers. Here in Washington state’s Yakima River Basin, we know what an important resource our waterways are, and we know how important it is to manage those waterways with effective and reliable infrastructure. We built dams and levees along the Yakima and Naches rivers in the mid-1900s to divert water for domestic uses or irrigation and to protect our growing towns from floods. Today, some of these dams are having unintended consequences for our community. They do not properly control flooding, they affect the salmon integral to our history and culture, and they disconnect our community from the beautiful rivers running through it.

 

When the city of Yakima built the Nelson Dam in the 1920s, and rebuilt it in 1985, it included then-state-of-the-art designs that represented our region’s best collective thinking. Today, we know that there are better ways to achieve the goals we set out to accomplish 30 years ago. To address these challenges, our community joined together to envision a path forward that restores our natural resources while maintaining the irrigation and community benefits that we all want for the future. Collectively, the City of Yakima, irrigators, the Yakama Nation, environmentalists, Yakima County, and state and federal agencies designed a project that balances today’s needs with today’s ecological and technical knowledge. With that new information, we determined that our best pathway will be to remove the Nelson Dam and replace it with less invasive and more effective infrastructure utilizing modern designs and technology. We are extremely proud of the work we have done. Instead of fighting in the courts, we relied on each other to find lasting solutions. Our strategy has been to work hand in hand not fist to fist — and it has been effective. With the new plan, the city will continue to divert river water, fish will be able to pass upstream to their spawning grounds, and natural habitat forming processes will be restored to six miles of the Naches River.

 

Importantly, the project will reduce flood risks to approximately 2,300 acres of commercial, rural residential and agricultural properties in Yakima County. Consolidation of several irrigation diversions as part of the project will also reduce flood hazards to commercial areas in the city of Yakima. This project, and the consolidated irrigation diversion, will be cheaper to operate and maintain than the existing flood management system. The health of our community is directly tied to the health of our rivers, the availability of clean water, and the infrastructure that protects it. By removing structures that have outlived their intended purposes and replacing them with a modern plan for managing our waterways, we can protect our economic interests in the safest and most cost-effective way possible. A waterway management plan rooted in dam removal won’t just create a better habitat for our fish, it will create a stronger community for us all.

Thank you Ron