Cooperatove Conservation Project

Water Without War: Cooperative Salmon Restoration

The Walla Walla Way of River Restoration

Location: Far West Region: Oregon Washington

Project Summary: River collaboration restores threatened fish by improving in-stream flow, habitat and water quality, while sustaining local farms and communities.
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Spring Chinook salmon returning to the Walla Walla River after flows are restored. (PHOTO BY U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS)
Resource Challenge

The tribal name, Walla Walla, means "many small waters," which well describes the braided-stream system that flows from the mountains of two states. Its abundant resources sustained Native Americans for generations. The inland West receives abundant winter precipitation but has arid summers; during the mid-1800s, Euro-American settlers started to divert Walla Walla Basin rivers to irrigate farms. By the 1920s, irrigation dams had extirpated abundant runs of native Chinook salmon. Periodic flooding of developing towns prompted extensive channeling projects, helping to create a seasonally dry river that required annual rescues of stranded fish.

In 1998 and 1999 respectively, bull trout and summer steelhead were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2000, faced with enforcement actions by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the USDI Fish and Wildlife Service, and a lawsuit by a coalition of environmental organizations, irrigators chose a proactive, innovative solution. They engaged federal agencies and environmentalists in conversations to create shared understanding. Reaching out to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, irrigators pledged to "help bring back their fish," prompting a partnership with the Tribal Council to "keep farmers farming."

Examples of Key Partners

Gardena Farms, Hudson Bay, and Walla Walla River Irrigation Districts, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Walla Walla, Columbia and Umatilla Counties; Walla Walla City, Oregon Watershed Council; Washington Watershed Planning Unit, Snake River Salmon Recovery Board, Kooskooskie Commons, Watershed Alliance. Tri-State Steelheaders, and others.

Results and Accomplishments

For the first time in 100 years, the Walla Walla River flows year-round, thanks to a settlement among three irrigation districts, Tribes, and federal agencies. These flows supplement earlier Tribal, state, and landowner partnerships to improve fish passage and habitat, enabling reintroduced Chinook salmon to return to the river. A flow enhancement feasibility study and spring Chinook hatchery are underway. Notable outcomes of the collaboration are:

  • 25 cubic feet per second (cfs) flow remains in the river in Oregon.
  • 18 cfs flow remains in the river in Washington.
  • 12.6 miles of irrigation delivery ditches piped.
  • 18 fish migration passage barriers removed.
  • 85 farms converted to efficient sprinklers.
  • 300 fish screens installed for irrigation and Walla Walla City diversion intakes.
  • 323 in-stream structures installed to improve habitat.
  • 142 miles of riparian buffers planted and protected.
  • 195,000 upland farm acres in conservation tillage and reserves to retain soils.

The Walla Walla Way, rooted in a trusting belief that cooperation gets things done, made a healthy river the foundation for the development of a Basin-wide Bi-State Habitat Conservation Plan.

Project Contact
Kevin Scribner

Walla Walla Watershed Alliance



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