Nelson, Old Union, and Fruitvale dams

Watershed-scale climate adaptation

About the Project

Nelson Dam was an eight-foot-high concrete barrier built in the 1920s and rebuilt in the 1980s to divert water for agricultural and residential use in and near Yakima, Washington. Until 2022, the dam crossed the Naches River, the largest tributary of the Yakima River where the Yakama Nation holds treaty rights to fish for cultural, spiritual, and economic reasons. Work to restore habitat and build new infrastructure continues for several years. Downstream of Yakima on Cowiche Creek, two more diversions—Old Union and Fruitvale—block fish passage and exacerbate flood hazards. Together, these three dams have dramatically altered the river’s hydrology, slowing the flow upstream, warming the water, and preventing salmon and steelhead from accessing hundreds of miles of habitat. Behind the dams, rock, gravel, and sediment have settled, starving the floodplain of sediment and increasing public safety risk due to flooding.

The City and County of Yakima are removing removing Fruitvale and Old Union dams and replacing Nelson Dam with a roughened channel that will replicate more natural river conditions and give fish access to 309 miles of some of the best cold-water habitat in the Yakima Basin to build long-term climate change resilience. By combining multiple water diversions into one, the project will reduce long-term maintenance costs, improve fish passage, fulfill Tribal treaty rights, expand the floodplain, and improve public safety. This builds on prior work by the City and County of Yakima to update water infrastructure, remove levees, restore floodplains, and reduce flood risk and hazard.

The project is part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a widely praised ecosystem restoration and climate adaptation collaboration of irrigators, environmentalists, government agencies, and the Yakama Nation.

Owner: City of Yakima
Size: 8 feet high, 180 feet wide (Nelson); 8 feet high by 20 feet wide (Fruitvale)
Project Cost: $24.6 million
ORF Investment: Design, engineering, outreach, construction, and monitoring
Miles Opened: 309 miles
Fish: Coho, summer Chinook, spring Chinook, sockeye, bull trout, and steelhead
Status: Nelson Dam removed 2022; Old Union and Fruitvale removals expected 2023-2024

  • Restore unimpeded fish passage to high-value, cold-water habitat on the Naches River and its tributaries
  • Protect Tribal treaty fishing rights
  • Reestablish sediment transport that will improve 6 miles of floodplain and river channel habitat upstream and downstream of the dam, including important fishery spawning and rearing areas.
  • Reduce flood risk in and near the City of Yakima
  • Reduce maintenance costs with a new intake system for irrigation and residential water
  • Improve quality and safety of in-town recreational access to the river corridor with recreational whitewater boating opportunities
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Project Partners

American Rivers

County of Yakima

City of Yakima

Yakama Nation

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

NOAA Fisheries

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Yakima Basin Integrated Plan

Washington Department of Ecology, Office of Columbia River

Yakima Basin Fish and Wildlife Recovery Board

River Legacy Foundation

Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board

Yakima River Runners