Each fall it's estimated hundreds of salmon and steelhead fish find their way into Sulpher Creek and spawn their eggs.
The Sulpher Creek wasteway, near Sunnyside, helps hold irrigation water but is a dead-end for spawning fish. As a result, the Bureau of Reclamation and the SVID/Roza Joint Board of Control have teamed up to build what's called a fish diverter to coax salmon and steelhead into spawning in the Yakima River.
The diverter is a combined ramp and barrier that keep the fish from heading into the wasteway and washes them back into the river.
"In times past in the fall, just before water season went off, the fish went all the way up to Sheller Road and couldn't go further," explained Tom Monroe of the Roza Irrigation District, which led the way in designing and constructing the diverter. "The Yakama Nation would trap them and haul them up the river."
The project hasn't been without hurdles, as well as some concerns by irrigators.
Monroe said work started last November, but the water table was so high that a western Washington company was called in to pump the water down enough so that concrete could be poured for the structure.
Another potential issue is the raising of the water level on part of Sulpher Creek for the fish diverter. Monroe said that concern was addressed early on. "That was something we discussed during the design process," he said. "Raising the level of the water is probably not a problem. It's still the same volume of water we've always had."
Monroe said the water level will be monitored, though, and if problems do occur then drainage will be put in to lower the water level.
That's all well and good, observes Orville Firestone, a farmer who relies on the irrigation system, but he's concerned the project was put ahead of other, potentially more important upgrades.
"There are a lot of very needy projects that SVID should be working on," says Firestone, who complains he's been waiting five years for SVID to change an eight-inch pipe along Sulpher Creek. "This cost in the vicinity of $6 million for 200 fish. Does that pencil out?"
Don Schramm is SVID's assistant manager of operations, and he says the project actually cost about $400,000. He says the bureau will pay half of that amount and the rest will be funded by the joint board of control.
Schramm said he didn't know exactly how many fish will benefit from the diverter, but he confirmed it is in the hundreds.
He pointed out the project was a combined effort and that other fish diverters will be needed along the irrigation system. "We started here first because we had a larger number of fish," Schramm said of the Sulpher Creek diverter.
"All the agencies are interested in figuring out to how make facilities operate the way they are supposed to," he added, "I think it (the Sulpher Creek diverter) is another example of facing issues and addressing them."