Fisheries restoration program looks to buy property in Twisp
The Washington Department of Ecology has awarded a $4.2 million grant to the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation for purchase of up to 11.74 acres of floodplain land adjacent to the Methow River in Twisp.
The Yakama Nation considers itself to have a responsibility for the stewardship of Columbia River fish, including fish that use tributaries like the Methow River, and Yakama Nation Fisheries is motivated to improve fisheries and ecological resilience of all systems that are critical to Columbia River fish, said Hans Smith, Northern Treaty Territories Special Projects Lead for Yakama Nation Fisheries. Smith said Ecology and the Yakama Nation are still working to finalize a grant agreement.
Smith emphasized that securing funding is the first step in a long process. Talking with landowners will be a big part of the Yakama Nation’s initial work.
“There’s no guaranteed purchase right now,” said Smith. “It’s a voluntary acquisition project and there’s a lot of work we have to do … working with the landowners to see if they even want to sell.”
The Yakama Nation has identified nine parcels that are currently at risk of flooding, some of which have been severely eroded in the last several years. The land is located between Highway 20 and the Methow River, and extends from a side channel just north of the Twisp town limit to a bend in the Twisp River several hundred feet north of the Twisp River bridge.
Yakama Nation Fisheries worked on the side channel in 2014. The project, called the “1890s Side Channel Restoration,” included restoring the channel’s connection with the river, developing a year-round water supply, and adding rocks, wood, and native vegetation to create salmon habitat.
Some of the parcels identified for possible acquisition are undeveloped. There are structures on others, including houses, the Community Covenant Church, and several mobile homes on land owned by the church.
The Yakama Nation will have the land and structures appraised and begin working with landowners to find out whether they are open to selling their property. If landowners agree, the Yakama Nation would remove the structures and provide relocation assistance to any tenants who would be displaced.
So far, said Smith, “no one has committed to selling their land, and we’re possibly a few years from having that level of commitment from anybody.” The grant funds will be available until 2027.
Responding to erosion
River channels can migrate when high water exerts force on unreinforced banks. That happened along the Methow River north of Twisp in 2017 and 2018, when heavy spring runoff caused significant erosion as the river channel shifted and displaced soil, rocks, and trees.
In 2018, the erosion was severe enough that it prompted Community Covenant Church leaders to explore options for protecting church structures. Ultimately, the church applied for and was granted a permit to harden the river bank in order to prevent further migration in the adjacent stretch of river.
The hardening project would affect fish habitat in that area, said Smith. The Yakama Nation is “not opposed to them doing it, I want to be clear, but we are concerned that if they did do it, it could have negative impacts on the function of the side-channel habitat project we did in 2014.”
That gives the tribal organization an incentive to help the church find a habitat-friendly solution, Smith said. “We’re just trying to come up with … all-around beneficial solutions to this particular flooding and erosion issue,” he said.
“The [Yakama Nation] project is designed to restore salmon habitat, protect lives and property, and keep non-regulated flood protection measures from being constructed,” according to a news release from Ecology. Acquiring the land in Twisp and removing the existing structures would allow the river channel to move within its natural migration zone without threatening people or property.
Giving the river access to a broader floodplain also allows for exchange of materials between the channel and the adjacent land. The river can recruit sediment and vegetative material that help create instream habitat and feed fish and other aquatic creatures.
At high flow, the water can also deliver materials to the floodplain, helping native plants to become established and developing a complex riparian system that supports native wildlife species and can provide a high-water refuge for fish.
Acquiring the land directly downstream of the restored side channel would also create opportunities for the Yakama Nation to re-route the lower portion of that channel, adding length between the highway and the river.
“It’s a groundwater-fed side channel system, so it’s way cooler in the summer and way warmer in the winter than the mainstem,” said Smith. In addition to maintaining a relatively stable temperature, the side channel is more physically stable than the river channel, and less likely to be damaged by flooding.
In that environment, “we can add more complexity and cover for juvenile fish,” Smith said, creating more of the type of habitat the young fish need in that section of the river. Building complexity into a side channel rather than placing structures in the mainstem also reduces risk to river users, Smith said.
Partnership with Twisp
The Town of Twisp has been an important partner in planning the Floodplains by Design project, Smith said, and the Yakama Nation plans to transfer ownership of land acquired through the program to the town.
The project site abuts land already owned by the town, and the mayor and town council have agreed to the ownership transfer “in concept,” although the two parties have not yet formalized the arrangement.
Smith is currently a member of the Twisp Town Council, and said he’s recused himself from discussions of the land acquisition project, although he did bring the project “into the public domain” for town consideration. Noting that he expects to be Twisp’s mayor beginning in 2024, Smith said he will not manage the project for the Yakama Nation once he’s been inaugurated. He does anticipate assisting with the project as a representative of the town.
Other partners include the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), which has a strong interest in seeing the river allowed to move rather than constrained by a hardened shoreline, and other agencies with shoreline and instream permitting responsibilities. The Yakama Nation is coordinating with the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, with has also been awarded Floodplains by Design funding and will be working on levee removal and channel reconnection nearby.
Plans for the land
As the Yakama Nation develops a sense of landowners’ willingness to sell, the organization will begin to conduct preliminary studies and make more detailed plans for the land. Work is likely to include extending the 1890s side channel onto the site, if that’s feasible, and may also include restoring native vegetation.
As trees become established in the area, they will become a source of debris that’s valuable to fish and other aquatic wildlife, and the roots will help stabilize the soil, said Smith.
Smith expects the land will be available for non-motorized recreational use. “We anticipate doing a recreation plan for the site once we have better understanding of what properties will actually be incorporated into the town’s holdings,” he said, and the Yakama Nation would be likely to seek additional funding to restore habitat and implement the recreation plan.
Smith praised the Floodplains by Design program for providing enough time and funds to allow the process of working with landowners and understanding their needs and interests to unfold.
“The amount of flexibility being offered by this project … is a blessing, I think, to all the folks participating,” he said. “And the key is that we’re working in good faith. You know, we all have different objectives … but we’re working to make sure that we understand each other’s objectives, and that everyone’s needs are being met in good faith.”