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Sunnyside joins effort to clean up Yakima River

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At the heart of likely costly water treatment requirements for cities along the Yakima River is the algae and water plants that are thriving in the river and threatening young salmon. Pictured is an example of the Yakima River issue, downstream of Benton City.

Taking a lesson from cities along the Wenatchee and Spokane rivers, the Sunnyside City Council on Monday night decided to get on board with a push to clean up the Yakima River.

It's more of an enlist before you're drafted strategy, as the state's Department of Ecology is working on a two-year study that will require municipalities up and down the river to lay out perhaps millions of dollars to clean up the waterway.

The Spokane River study, for example, resulted in the state requiring $100 million in municipal wastewater upgrades to clean the river to a suitable standard dictated by the Department of Ecology. Costs for the Walla Walla River clean-up were so onerous that the city of Dayton threw up its hands, stating it couldn't afford the cost and would apply to have its waste processed on land rather than via a wastewater treatment plant.

"We want to be a player in this study and not a bystander," City Public Works Director Jim Bridges told council.

No sooner did Sunnyside's recent upgrades to its treatment plant finish construction, then the state began indicating it would require more stringent standards, Bridges said.

Marie Zuroske is a water quality specialist with the South Yakima Conservation District. She just completed a grant-funded study to give cities a heads up on some of the issues the state will likely pounce on.

She says the study could have significant impacts on cities all along the river, from Cle Elum to West Richland.

Long story short, the nutrients cities need to treat their wastewater is like manna for algae and aquatic plants. The result is a Yakima River choked in places by grasses and water plants that are hindering suitable levels of sunlight and oxygen from getting to young salmon.

The Yakima Valley's issue is more complex than those in other areas of the state, Zuroske told the Sunnyside City Council Monday, as farm and irrigation run-off contribute chemicals and nutrients that feed the unwanted plant growth.

Later after the council meeting, Zuroske said she is trying to get the message to farms and irrigation districts about the upcoming state action. They have expressed less interest in joining the effort, she said, because the state has in the past gone after large single entities, like cities, rather than chasing down individual farmers and irrigation districts.

That's the past, though, and Zurosky said she doesn't know what the Department of Ecology will come up with this time in treating problems unique to the Yakima River.

Sunnyside's hope is that by joining with Yakima and other cities along the river it will be able to better state its case to state bureaucrats.

That doesn't mean the city is excited about it.

Councilman Bruce Epps said he is opposed to what the state is trying to do because it doesn't know for sure what the impact will be to the river if changes are made. At one point, he said he would oppose joining the venture to the point that the state would have to call in the National Guard to force the issue.

Frustrations shared by Epps and council in general aside, council members on Monday night unanimously agreed to draft a letter of support for a regional effort of cities along the Yakima River to unite in addressing the river issues and the Department of Ecology.

Council at its next meeting, Oct. 27, is expected to formally approve the letter of support.

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