White Salmon — Local, state, and tribal partners are exploring if the White Salmon River could be used as an alternative source for drinking water during the summer.

The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation is the latest member of a key advisory group to dedicate funding towards the next round of studies aimed at exploring the reliability and feasibility to establish a new surface water diversion on the White Salmon River.

Bill Sharp, project coordinator with Yakama Nation Fisheries, said the agreement, which is still in process, was created for cost-sharing purposes since the group sees a benefit to examining further whether the White Salmon River could provide suitable drinking water in the summer, leaving Buck Creek as a habitable tributary for instream aquatic resources during spawn season.

Sharp said there is data to show that decreasing the flow withdrawal could lead to an increase in natural resources.

“Post-Condit Dam Removal, within days after that we saw salmon move upstream,” Sharp said, including Steelhead and some Spring Chinook. “That’s the real driver ... it could go a long way in conserving resources.” (The Condit Dam on the White Salmon River was removed in October 2011.) Sharp explained the Yakama Nation Fisheries has been involved with this project early on, one factor being the Treaty of 1855 signed between the Yakama Nation and the State of Washington, which cites the White Salmon Basin as ceded lands.

“The Yakama people have been on the landscape, it’s part of their traditional home,” said Sharp, explaining it is why they “work to preserve and protect the land.”

“We do really appreciate the city looking into this with us and (the Department of Ecology),” Sharp added.

Jan Brending, clerk/treasurer for the City of White Salmon, expressed appreciation on behalf of the City to have the Yakama Nation as a partner in the project.

The Yakama Nation provided $20,000 for the preliminary study. The City of White Salmon provided a further $25,000, on top of a grant awarded by the state Department of Ecology for $200,000, provided to the City in May.

City of White Salmon is participating in the study because declining aquifer levels in the wells the city currently uses have necessitated a greater reliance on Buck Creek, which did not meet the city’s water needs during a 2015 drought. As explained in the project scope of work approved by city council in May 2020, the city made efforts to move forward with restoring the Jewett Springs as the primary water source, but objections made by state and tribal fisheries managers halted progress.

The Department of Ecology had funded an appraisal-level study in 2017 through Aspect Consulting to examine other prospects, which suggested the possibility of installing a new system on the White Salmon River.

According to the project scope of work, “an opportunity exists to create or explore a new surface water diversion on the White Salmon River with shared benefits for both instream aquatic resources and the city, but would require significant upgrades or new facilities to the city system, including a new screened intake, pumping infrastructure, a new surface water treatment facility, disinfection, transmission main improvements, and operational changes.”

Principal Water Resources Engineer Dan Haller, with Aspect Consulting, said the team is in the process of analyzing the quality of the water in the White Salmon River. Those results will then be screened with the capabilities of the slow-sand filter process, the equivalent of the treatment system currently used at Buck Creek. Aspect’s contract was lengthened by the city after it did the appraisal-level study.

The slow-sand filter process is a common technique that has been around for centuries, said Haller. By running water through what Haller called a “glorified sandbox” the size of two large living rooms, water is filtered much the same way water is filtered through wells. The ideal outcome would be to have the capability to run the same filtration system that the city is currently using on Buck Creek for efficiency reasons.

Haller said the main goals of the project are to examine if the White Salmon River is a suitable source of water that is reliable during droughts, and for flow recovery on Buck Creek to conserve the aquatic resources. The project scope of work would seek to keep the treatment system on Buck Creek, using it outside of spawning season, and to continue using the wells as a redundancy measure.

According to the project scope of work, “Such a project could result in approximately 3.2 cubic feet per second (cfs) of instream flow benefit for aquatic resources. Approximately 2.2 cfs of late summer and fall water rights on Buck Creek would be exchanged for an equivalent amount of water rights on the White Salmon River; 1 cfs of Jewett Springs rights would be similarly exchanged.”

Haller said the team is on track to begin the pilot study early next year, which will determine if the slow-sand filtration process would work given the water quality of the White Salmon River. Such an analysis takes up to a year to complete, Haller said, running the water long enough to adequately measure the data.

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