At confluence of Yakima and Columbia a barrier to salmon may finally be removed

Nathan Gilles - Columbia Insight

Undesired outcomes: Warm, stagnant water created by the Bateman Island Causeway invites predatory fish that feed on juvenile salmon and steelhead and enables toxic algal blooms. Photo: Resources Legacy Fund
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On a sunny but cold morning, Joe Blodgett walks the well-trodden dirt path along the Bateman Causeway.

Roughly 550 feet long and 40 feet wide and 40 feet tall, the artificial earthen causeway connects the central Washington city of Richland to Bateman Island, a quarter of a square mile, naturally occurring island that sits in a delta at the mouth of the Yakima River where the Yakima flows into the Columbia.

“So, this is it. This is what we want removed,” says Blodgett, gesturing to the causeway with arms spread wide.

Blodgett, a fish biologist, and member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, leads the Nation’s Yakama/Klickitat Fisheries Project.

Blodgett says research conducted by the Yakama Nation and others has reached a scientific consensus: the Bateman Causeway blocks and slows the natural flow of the Yakima River, creating pools of warm, low-oxygen-containing water that impedes the migration of cold-water-loving salmon while simultaneously providing ideal habitat for fish that prey on them.

The Yakama Nation has spent decades trying to rebuild local salmon populations, which once exceeded half a million in the Yakima River Basin, but now number roughly just 10,000.

By sitting at the mouth of the river, Blodgett says the Bateman Causeway creates a salmon migration bottleneck that impedes the health of the entire basin’s fish populations.

This is why, he says, the Yakama Nation is pushing for the causeway’s removal. Last month, they got a little closer to that goal.

Joe Blodgett is a fish biologist. He leads the Yakama/Klickitat Fisheries Project.

Run counter: Fish biologist Joe Blodgett leads the Yakama/Klickitat Fisheries Project. Photo: Nathan Gilles

On Jan. 30, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla district office released a long-expected draft report calling for the removal of the Bateman Causeway to “improve the flows around the island and allow for cooler water to improve habitat for salmonids.

Part of an ongoing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, the report includes an Environmental Assessment that details the negative impacts the causeway is having on migrating salmonids, including several local salmon and steelhead populations listed as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

According to the report, the best way to reduce the thermal barrier and lessen the threat of predation is to remove the causeway.

The Corps has also issued a draft Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI, stating the act of removing the causeway would not in itself further harm protected fish.

“It’s exciting for us that things are moving forward and progressing,” says Blodgett about the decision to remove the causeway.

However, not everyone is expected to be happy with the decision.

And we’ve heard this sort of thing before.

Opposition to causeway removal

The Corps is now accepting public comments on its recommendation. The public comment period ends on March 10.

If past public records are any guide, the Corps is likely to hear from local bird watchers, the local tourism board and the City of Richland, all of which have previously expressed concerns about removing the causeway.

That’s because while the Bateman Causeway has created abnormally warm waters, it has also created something many people want: access to Bateman Island.

Aerial view of Bateman Island and associated causeway at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers.

Heart-shaped Box: At the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers, the causeway to Bateman Island creates a slack water trap for migrating fish. Photo: Resources Legacy Fund

The local chapter of the Audubon Society wants access to the island to watch birds. Visit Tri-Cities, the local tourism board, wants people to be able to access the island to increase tourism.

And the City of Richland wants access for its emergency vehicles. The City is currently responsible for putting out wildfires on the island. Without a causeway, this access would stop, and fires would need to be fought by boat.

To address these issues, a bridge has been proposed that could accommodate both pedestrians and emergency vehicles.

But this proposal—which has been floated for years—was rejected as unfeasible in the current report by the Corps.  

Then there’s the issue of the Columbia Park Marina, a privately owned marina just south of the island and causeway.

By slowing the flow of the Yakima River, the Bateman Causeway is widely believed to have made this marina possible. Removing the causeway could create swift currents that the marina wasn’t designed to withstand, according to previous research and news reports.

State sponsor, fed bucks

This isn’t the first time a report has called for removing Bateman Causeway.

The Corps’ current report follows decades of studies and reports—including a different report by the Corps itself—that have come to similar conclusions. And yet the causeway is still there.

But this time is expected to be different.

The decision to remove Bateman Causeway is now firmly backed by the Endangered Species Act.

On top of this, the Corps owns both Bateman Causeway and Bateman Island. This gives the federal agency considerable leverage to do what it wants with the land so long as it complies with the law.

Footpath from the mainland to Bateman Island in Washington.

Pebbled path: Removal of the causeway is seen as critical to salmon recovery by various groups. Others oppose the idea based on fire and access concerns. Photo: Nathan Gilles

The Corps also has the backing of the State of Washington.

In fact, the state seems eager to get rid of the causeway.

The state has already incorporated the causeway’s removal into its larger Yakima Basin planning effort.

And in a press conference held on Jan. 31, Mike Livingston, regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and state lead on the causeway effort, noted that Bateman Causeway hampered all the hard work and money spent by his and other agencies working to improve conditions for salmon in the Yakima Basin.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars that we are investing throughout the basin to improve conditions for fish,” said Livingston. “The Bateman Island Causeway, connecting the mainland to the island, impedes the success of our efforts because of its critical location at the mouth of the river.”

The cost of removing of Bateman Causeway (estimated at $12.9 million) is set to be split between the state ($3.2 million) and the federal government ($9.7 million).

As it happens, those federal dollars are already coming.

In December 2022, the State of Washington was awarded $39.8 million in federal funds to remove dams and other fish barriers.

This included $3.62 million awarded to the Yakama Nation “to remove the Bateman Island Causeway” and complete research efforts related to another fish barrier in the Yakima Basin, according to a press release from U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, who reportedly helped secure the funds for her state.

Warming waters bad for salmon

Constructed sometime between 1939 and 1940—likely illegally by an area farmer to allow cattle grazing on the island—the Bateman Causeway sits at the southern end of Bateman Island. This forces both out-migrating juveniles, or smolts, and returning adults to, in effect, take the long way around the island.

More importantly, the causeway blocks the warmer waters of the Yakima River from easily mixing with cooler waters of the Columbia River. These waters back up around the island and causeway.

The situation is made worse by the location of the causeway in a delta at the mouth of the Yakima River.

According to past research, the causeway has created a buildup of sediment around itself and the island, making the delta’s water shallower.

All of this leads to warm waters with low levels of dissolved oxygen.

These conditions make salmonids sluggish. Especially warm waters can even kill the fish.

“It’s pretty frustrating to have fish make it this far and come to the final roadblock in the Yakima River.” —Joe Blodgett, fish biologist

But while salmon metabolism dials down in warm waters—making the fish lethargic and easy prey—many fish that feed on salmon, including small mouth bass, have the opposite reaction. They get revved up.

Multiple studies have documented that nonnative walleye, smallmouth bass and channel catfish feed on the steelhead, chinook, sockeye and coho smolts caught in the delta’s slow, warm waters.

“So, this creates not only a block for the fish to move past,” says Blodgett, “it creates habitat for predation. It creates backwater that gets excessively hot, creating lethal temperatures.”

What’s especially frustrating, says Blodgett, is these problems have been understood for years.

Previous studies

The first study to suggest Bateman Causeway created a thermal migration barrier was published in 1986.

However, the key study on the Yakima Delta and the Bateman Causeway came in 1997, when researchers commissioned by the Bureau of Reclamation flew over the delta, pointing infrared sensors at the land and water below.

On the resulting heat map, especially warm waters could be seen coalescing around the causeway and island.

“From that image you can really see the impact the land form [the Bateman Causeway] is having on temperatures in the delta,” says Rebecca Wassell, Yakima Basin program director at the nonprofit Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group.

Wassell says the 1997 study was a real eye-opener and informed much of the research that followed.

This included a 2004 report by the Army Corps of Engineers. Like the current Corps report, this report concluded that to improve conditions for fish Bateman Causeway needed to be removed.

However, nothing came of this report, and the question of what do about the causeway languished for another decade.

Map shows location of Bateman Island in Washington at confluence of Yakima and Columbia Rivers

Bateman Island location by Google Maps

Then came a 2014 report led by Mid-Columbia Fisheries, the Yakama Nation and the Benton Conservation District.

This report also concluded the causeway needed to go.

The report’s scientific analysis was done in conjunction with a technical advisory group that included state and federal fish biologists. The report was funded by the Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Outside scientists familiar with the complex dynamics of river deltas were hired to use a computer to simulate water temperature scenarios that would occur if the causeway was either partially or fully breeched.

This work, summarized in the 2014 report, concluded that the best scenario for increasing flows around Bateman Island—and hence lowering water temperatures—was a full breech, or complete removal, of the causeway.

A 2016 report, again led by Mid-Columbia Fisheries and including the participation of fish biologists from state and federal agencies as well as the Yakama Nation, would also conclude the best scenario for fish would be the complete removal of the causeway.

This study, however, went one step further and considered a series of possible construction options that included both full and partial breaches of the causeway.

The report also includes a plan for a new bridge that could be accessed by pedestrians and emergency vehicles.

However, the Corps’ current report has determined that building a new bridge to Bateman Island should be “removed from further consideration” because it could disturb human burial sites.

Community fishing site

Bateman Island was once a popular fishing and trading site for the region’s original inhabitants.

The Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Wanapum Band, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Nez Perce Tribe all consider the island to be culturally important.

The island also lies partly within the Tri-Cities Archeological District and contains multiple sites listed with the National Register.

Lewis and Clark once visited the island and there are pre-contact sites in the area as well.

The local chapter of the Audubon Society holds frequent “bird walks” on Bateman Island.

In fact, human occupation of Bateman Island likely dates back at least 16,000 years, creating a “high likelihood of sub-surface remains,” according to the Corps’ report.

“You can imagine what this area was like before the causeway, before all this was developed,” says Blodgett. “It was a place for the tribes to meet to harvest, to trade, to barter. It was a great gathering location. This place flourished with the spring chinook and then you had the summers with sockeye.”

Blodgett declined to comment on the Corps’ decision to rule out the construction of a bridge, saying it was a matter for the Yakama Nation’s cultural resources department, not its fisheries. But, he says, the Yakama Nation is open to listening to others’ concerns.

“We want to make sure that we do hear from all sides their concerns so that we are aware of issues that we are not addressing,” says Blodgett. “We definitely want to work through all the problems, but again the benefit of removing this causeway for the fish populations is something that we see as a high priority.”

Wildfires, emergency access

The highest priority for the City of Richland seems to be wildfires.

The Corps’ decision to rule out the construction of a new bridge and remove the causeway makes the future of wildfire management on the island uncertain.

“The last several fires on the island have been fought by the city of Richland,” says Joe Schiessl, deputy city manager and acting parks and public facilities director for the City of Richland. “The city doesn’t have the resources to fight fire on the island without there being a bridge to access the island.”

Richland firefighters put out fires on Bateman Island in the summers of 2017 and 2018. Access to the island was closed for weeks following both fires.

In a press conference held in January, the Corps was vague about how wildfires on the island would be dealt with in the future.

“In communication with the city [of Richland] and others it has been understood that boating actually could be used to fight fires,” said Kat Herzog, Corps planner and project manager, during the press conference. However, Herzog said there would be “limitations” to this plan.

While Bateman Island and the causeway are owned by the Corps, the Corps currently leases both the island and the causeway to the City of Richland.

It’s unclear if the lease will continue in the future

“That’s something we are continuing to work through,” Herzog responded when asked about the future of the lease.

If Richland’s lease isn’t continued, the responsibility for fighting fires on the island might no longer fall on the city.

But which government entity might be on the hook in the future isn’t yet known.

“I think it is important for everyone to realize that the public services could change because of this [removal of the causeway],” said Herzog.    

Schiessl says the City of Richland has submitted a comment to the Corps that fire is its major concern.

Boat owners weigh in

Also uncertain is the fate of the Columbia Park Marina, the private marina that lies just south of the causeway.

According to multiple sources, the marina was designed for slack water—slack water currently being provided by Bateman Causeway, which functions as a breakwater for the marina, slowing the Yakima River around the marina to manageable levels.

According to the 2016 report, a partial breach to full breach of the causeway could increase peak spring and summer flows up to .30 meters (roughly a full foot) per second.

While vague about what this increased flow might mean for the marina, the report includes a plan to construct a new breakwater in front of the marina as a potential counter measure.

The Corps’ report mentions this plan just once and doesn’t include an assessment of how feasible it’d be to construct a breakwater.

Columbia Park Marina at Bateman island at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers.

Steady as she goes: Just downriver from the causeway, the Columbia Park Marina could suffer from removal of the causeway. Photo: Nathan Gilles

A public boat launch also sits just south of the marina. It too could be affected by increased flows, according to the 2016 report.

Seemingly contradicting these earlier findings, the Corps’ report states: “The Columbia Park Marina and City of Richland public boat launch would be moderately affected by the removal of the causeway.”

Herzog says the Corps performed its own analysis of increased river flows that could occur if the causeway was removed.

However, it’s worth noting that the Corps’ modeling, according to Herzog’s own admission, looked at average flows, not peak flows.

The Corps estimates that for 90% of the year, flows would only increase by 0.2 feet per second.

“It’s important to understand that that [increased river flow] was not deemed a significant impact,” said Herzog. “It’s not a very fast pace for the majority of the time.”

Asked about the other 10% of the time that might include damaging peak flows, Herzog responded, “At this time that is a risk of operating along a river.”

The private marina, however, sits on public land.

The marina currently subleases its location from the City of Richland, which in turn leases the site from the Corps and the State of Washington. The Corps controls the shoreline while the state controls the river.

Both the marina and the City of Richland have been denied a new long-term lease by the Corps and the state for failing to comply with state and federal laws, according to the Corps’ report. The lease is now on a month-to-month status.

Columbia Park Marina did not respond to phone and email requests for an interview.

Tourism and recreation

Another vocal critic of removing the causeway has been Visit Tri-Cities—the local tourism board has also expressed concerns about the Columbia Parka Marina and lost recreational opportunities should the causeway be breached.

Shortly after the release of the 2016 report calling for the causeway’s removal, then President and CEO of Visit Tri-Cities, Kris Watkins, wrote a letter to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife opposing the removal of the causeway, because it could adversely affect the local marina, according to the Tri-City Herald, the local paper of record.

Visit Tri-Cities also opposed the removal of the causeway because it limited access to the island and because increased river flows around the island could make boating more difficult, according to the Herald.

The Herald itself would also state its opposition to breaching the causeway.

In a 2016 op-ed, the paper’s editorial board echoed Visit Tri-Cities’ concerns that increased river currents would negatively impact the marina, writing that state officials “will have to be prepared to alleviate any negative consequences that might occur if they end up going through with such a drastic plan.”

More recently, Visit Tri-Cities has taken a less combative stance on the removal of causeway.

Kevin Lewis, the organization’s current president and CEO, says his organization is still concerned about recreational access to the island and negative impacts on the marina, though he says helping struggling fish species is also a concern.

“We are definitely in support of taking care of the fish and improving water quality,” says Lewis. “Those are all components in recreation and good uses of resources.”

Birders and bridges

The local chapter of the Audubon Society, which holds frequent “bird walks” on Bateman Island, supports improving water quality, but is also concerned about having continued access to the island should the causeway be removed, according to Dana Carl Ward, conservation chair for the Lower Columbia Audubon Society.

In an email to Columbia Insight Ward wrote: “Basically Audubon supports removal of the causeway but we need to be assured that fire response vehicles can get to the island in case of wildfire or human medical needs. We would like to see a bridge that can support response vehicles or the causeway modified with culverts to allow access and free water flow.”

However, Ward wrote that local Audubon members are also concerned that the removal of the causeway could impair migrating birds’ ability to find food.

But this ability to find food, says Blodgett, while good for bird and birders, is bad for salmon.

Removing “final roadblock”

On the cold morning Blodgett walks the causeway, migrating birds can be seen hunting in the shallows around Bateman Island.

“There’s an example of part of the problem,” says Blodgett. “Because of the congregation of fish, you get predation from pelican and a variety of other species.”

Blodgett says he’s spoken with the members of the local Audubon Society and says he understands their concerns, but the causeway still needs to go.

Since the landmark 1974 Boldt Decision gave the Yakama Nation co-ownership with the State of Washington of the Yakima Basin’s fisheries, the Yakama Nation has pursued a proactive fisheries agenda.

The Nation’s fishery has reintroduced sockeye, coho and summer chinook to the basin. All three species were previously extirpated, or locally extinct, largely due to dams and other obstructions.

This work is now coordinated through the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a comprehensive effort that includes not only the Yakama Nation, but also state and federal agencies, county and municipal governments, environmental nonprofits and even the basin’s irrigators. Removing Bateman Causeway is now part of this effort.

Echoing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s position, Blodgett says if the Bateman Causeway isn’t removed it will continue to hamper all this hard work and lessen the impact of dollars spent.

“And not just [the work and spending of] the Yakama Nation,” says Blodgett, “but the federal, state and private communities have put in a lot of resources in the Yakima Basin for the fish populations.

“Obviously with all our resources, it’s pretty frustrating to have the fish make it this far and come to the final roadblock in the Yakima River where it meets the Columbia right at the mouth here.”