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Surface-Water-Quality Assessment of the Yakima River Basin, Washington: Overview of Major Findings

By Jennifer L. Morace, Gregory J. Fuhrer, Joseph F. Rinella, Stuart W. McKenzie, and Others

USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 98-4113, 119 pages, 35 figures, 32 tables

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Surface-water-quality conditions were assessed in the Yakima River Basin, which drains 6,155 square miles of mostly forested, range, and agricultural land in Washington. The Yakima River Basin is one of the most intensively farmed and irrigated areas in the United States, and is often referred to as the "Nation's Fruitbowl." Natural and anthropogenic sources of contaminants and flow regulation control water-quality conditions throughout the basin. This report summarizes the spatial and temporal distribution, sources, and implications of the dissolved oxygen, water tem- perature, pH, suspended sediment, nutrient, organic compound (pesticide), trace element, fecal indicator bacteria, radionuclide, and aquatic ecology data collected during the 1987-91 water years.

The Yakima River descends from a water surface altitude of 2,449 feet at the foot of Keechelus Dam to 340 feet at its mouth downstream from Horn Rapids Dam near Richland. The basin can be divided into three distinct river reaches on the basis of its physical characteristics. The upper reach, which drains the Kittitas Valley, has a high gradient, with an average streambed slope of 14 feet per mile (ft/mi) over the 74 miles from the foot of Keechelus Dam (river mile [RM] 214.5) to just upstream from Umtanum. The middle reach, which drains the Mid Valley, extends a distance of 33 miles from Umtanum (RM 140.4) to just upstream from Union Gap and also has a high gradient, with an average streambed slope of 11 ft/mi. The lower reach of the Yakima River drains the Lower Valley and has an average streambed slope of 7 ft/mi over the 107 miles from Union Gap (RM 107.2) to the mouth of the Yakima River.

These reaches exhibited differences in water-quality conditions related to the differences in geologic sources of contaminants and land use. Compared with the rest of the basin, the Kittitas Valley and headwaters of the Naches River Subbasin had relatively low concentrations and loads of suspended sediment, nutrients, organic compounds, and fecal indicator bacteria. There were very few failures to meet the Washington State dissolved oxygen standard or exceedances of the water temperature and pH standards in this reach. In general, these areas are considered to be areas of less-degraded water quality in the basin. The pre-Tertiary metamorphic and intrusive rocks of the Cle Elum and Teanaway River Subbasins, however, were found to be significant geologic sources of antimony, arsenic, chromium, copper, mercury, nickel, selenium, and zinc. As a result, the arsenic, chromium, and nickel concentrations measured in the streambed sediment of the Kittitas Valley were 13 to 74 times higher than those measured in the Lower Valley.

The Mid and Lower Valleys had similar water-quality conditions, governed by the intensive agricultural and irrigation activities, highly erosive landscapes, and flow regulation. Most of the failures to meet the Washington State standards for dissolved oxygen and exceedances of the standards for water temperature and pH occurred in the Mid and Lower Valleys. Agricultural drains in the Mid and Lower Valleys were found to be significant sources of nutrients, suspended sediment, pesticides, and fecal indicator bacteria. Downstream from the irrigation diversions near Union Gap, summertime streamflow in the Yakima River was drastically reduced to only a few hundred cubic feet per second. In the lower Yakima River, agricultural return flow typically accounts for as much as 80 percent of the main stem summertime flow near the downstream terminus of the basin. Therefore, the water-quality characteristics of the lower Yakima River resemble those of the agricultural drains. The highest fecal bacteria concentrations (35,000 colonies of Escherichia coli per 100 milliliters of water) were measured in the Granger/ Sunnyside area, the location of most of the livestock in the basin. The east side area of the Lower Valley (area east of the Yakima River) was the predominant source area for suspended sediment and pesticides in the basin. This area had the largest acreage of irrigated land and generally received the largest application of pesticides. Owing to the highly erosive soils of the area, the suspended sediment load from the east side in June 1989 (320 kilograms per day) was five or more times larger than from any other area, and the loads of several of the more hydrophobic organic compounds were four or more times larger.

An ecological assessment of the Yakima River Basin ranked physical, chemical, and biological conditions at impaired (degraded) sites against reference sites in an effort to understand how land use changes physical and chemical site characteristics and how biota respond to these changes. For this assessment, the basin was divided into four natural ecological categories: (1) Cascades ecoregion, (2) Eastern Cascades Slopes and Foothills ecoregion, (3) Columbia Basin ecoregion, and (4) large rivers. Each of these categories has a unique combination of climate and landscape features that produces a distinctive terrestrial vegetation assemblage.

In the combined Cascades and Eastern Cascades site group, which had the fewest impaired sites, the metals index was the only physical and chemical index that indicated any impairment. The moderate levels of impairment noted in the invertebrate and algal communities were not, however, associated with metals, and may have been related to the effects of logging, although the intensity of logging was not directly quantified in this study. Sites in the Columbia Basin site group were all moderately or severely impaired with the exception of the two reference sites (Umtanum Creek and Satus Creek below Dry Creek), which showed no physical, chemical, or biological impairment. Three sites were heavily affected by agriculture (Granger Drain, Moxee Drain, and Spring Creek) and were listed as severely impaired by most of the physical, chemical, and biological condition indices. Agriculture was the primary cause of the impairment of biological communities in this site group. The primary physical and chemical indicators of agricultural effects were nutrients, pesticides, dissolved solids, and substrate embeddedness, which all tended to increase with agricultural intensity. The biological effects of agriculture were manifested by a decrease in the abundance and number of native species of fish and invertebrates, a shift in algal communities to species indicative of eutrophic conditions, and higher abundances. There was also an increase in the abundance and number of nonnative fish species due to the prevalence of fish that are largely tolerant of nutrient-rich conditions. Main stem (large river) sites downstream from the city of Yakima exhibited severe impairment of fish communities associated with high levels of pesticides in fish tissues and the presence of external anomalies on fish.

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Last modified: 8/9/99