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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Nelson Dam removal provides new start on the Naches River

By Santiago Ochoa Yakima Herald-Republic

City, county, state and Yakama Nation officials gathered on the site of the completed Nelson Project on Wednesday, where the Nelson Dam spent nearly 100 years redirecting the flow of the Naches River.

The dam removal project, which had been in planning for years, began in the summer of 2021 with the hopes of reducing flood risk in the area, widening the river and improving fish passage. It is part of the larger Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, which aims to help fisheries, irrigators, communities and recreational opportunities that depend on water within the river basin.

The $18.1 million Nelson project was paid for by the city of Yakima and a handful of organizations like the state Department of Ecology’s Floodplain by Design program, which contributed close to $4.5 million toward the project.

In the years leading up to the changes, fish tracking studies revealed sediment buildup caused by Nelson Dam raised the Naches River’s floodplain just a few miles downstream. That same buildup was filling the dam’s fish ladder with gravel, hindering passage over the dam for fish.

Mike Livingston, the south central region director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his agency’s mission is to conserve fish, wildlife and their habitats and provide outdoor recreation.

“This project hits a homerun on all of those values,” he said. “Removal of the dam has improved passage for juvenile salmon, steelhead and lamprey as they follow their long journey out to the ocean.”

Livingston said the turbulent waters that passed over the dams made it hard for young fish to swim upstream, leaving them vulnerable to predators and raising mortality rates. The fish ladder was removed and replaced with a roughened channel to ease the passage for fish.

The diversion project now provides fish with unimpeded passage to 223 miles of fish habitat upstream of the Nelson Project, according to the city’s project plan.

“Over time, riparian trees and shrubs will provide bank stability, wood for the river and habitat for fish and wildlife,” Livingston said. “Removing the dam and widening the floodplain reduces flood risk for the community and removes a major safety hazard for boaters.”

A sluiceway also is part of the Nelson project to divert water for irrigation.

Park to come

Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorated the end of the first phase of the project. Next steps will include the development of a park further downstream. Officials said they hope the more consistent flow of fish and widening of the river will allow for greater recreational opportunities for anglers and boaters in the area.

“This is something to celebrate,” said Joe Blodgett, a Yakama Nation Fisheries project manager. “This area is very significant to the Yakama Nation and the significance is here because of the salmon populations that continue to use this stretch of the river. Opening up this habitat for us to continue the work for all species that belong in this basin goes a long way our overall efforts.”

Santiago Ochoa’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members through the Yakima Valley Community Fund. For information on republishing, email