After years of negotiations, the Icicle Working Group has released its plan to improve conditions for salmon and people who rely on consistent water supply during drought and climate change.

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Officials are calling for the automation of little-known mountain dams in the famous Enchantments area near Leavenworth, as they try to provide a better flow to Icicle Creek, its languishing fish, Wenatchee Valley orchards and the city of Leavenworth, which all rely on the creek’s cold waters.

After six years of considering its options, the Icicle Working Group outlined its long-awaited plan to draw a stronger, consistent flow that is more resilient to drought and climate change in an environmental-impact statement released Thursday.

The decision has been closely watched by environmental groups and could face legal challenges. Icicle Creek draws on seven lakes in or near the Enchantments basin, a portion of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness that hikers seek for its high-alpine terrain dotted with crystalline lakes. Federal wilderness laws generally disallow new construction in wilderness areas, but the dams were built before the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the area’s designation as wilderness by Congress.

The plan aims to address myriad water needs, according to the impact statement. Consistent stream flow would help endangered chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout. Tribal salmon harvest has been in decline and aquatic habitat has been reduced by low flow and warm waters. The Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, which operates on Icicle River, needs a more reliable supply of cold, clean water for its operations. The city of Leavenworth, which pulls water from the Icicle, does not yet have enough water to meet projected demand in 2050, and is examining various options. Some years, there is not enough water to supply demand for agricultural irrigation.

The measures will cost an estimated $82 million, officials predict in the impact statement. They include a plan to automate dam releases from seven alpine lakes, including hiking destinations like Eightmile Lake, Colchuck Lake and Nada Lake. The plan also calls for Eightmile Lake to be raised several feet, or “restored,” to its “historical and permitted high water storage elevation.” The hatchery would see infrastructure upgrades. Some Icicle Creek channels could be modified for better fish passage around a large boulder field that stops fish from migrating upstream. The plan also emphasizes conservation projects in the Leavenworth area, like leak detection and new residential meter installation.

“We’re pretty excited. When we started the effort in 2012, there was a long history of litigation and little problem solving,” said Mike Kaputa, natural resources director for Chelan County. “It took us six years to get to this point and we have a restoration path forward.”

A mix of government agencies are responsible for Icicle Creek, the dams on the alpine lakes above and the land nearby. Officials will have to find funding for the individual projects, secure permits and meet other legal requirements before work begins. The projects will be subject to review and public comment processes, Kaputa said.

Water managers began to dam the high alpine lakes beginning in the 1920s and much of the infrastructure in use now dates back decades. Shortly after the dams went in, disputes over water rights began. In recent years, there hasn’t been enough water in Icicle Creek to supply everyone who desires it and instream flows have suffered.

The aging infrastructure has been problematic, too. Last year, the dam at Eightmile Lake began to overtop and threatened to burst, before emergency repairs temporarily solved the problem. Right now, changing the flow of many of the dams requires that someone hike miles up steep trails and adjust them by hand. The hatchery, which relies on decades-old equipment to hatch and rear fish, needs maintenance and has been the subject of lawsuits over water quality and its pollution discharge.

Officials hope that automating the seven dams’ release will provide for a more consistent flow of water that lasts through dry summers when Icicle Creek relies heavily on snowmelt. Climate change is expected to worsen current flow issues because forecasters expect precipitation to fall more often as rain rather than snow, according to the impact statement. More rainfall during the winter months would produce a shallower snowpack, which would provide less flow from snowmelt during summer.

In summer 2015, a drought year considered a glimpse into Washington state’s climate future, the hatchery began to experience problems as early as June, according to hatchery officials. By summer’s end, they had to kill thousands of fish because of disease and truck others away from the hatchery as temperatures soared.

Legal challenges to the Icicle Working Group’s plan likely loom. Environmental organizations, in letters to the working group, were critical of a previous draft version of the impact statement. The groups expressed skepticism over whether it would be legal to restore Eightmile Dam because of water-right relinquishment laws.

“At some point it’s going to be necessary to take legal action of one kind or another,” said Karl Forsgaard, the past president of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society, who is a lawyer and is reviewing the impact statement. “The expansion of the lake and the expansion of infrastructure are impacts on wilderness values.” 

Forsgaard said allowing Eightmile Lake to be enlarged would be “unprecedented action” in the national wilderness system. He also has “procedural concerns” about the working group’s process and the lack of attention to the U.S. Forest Service’s role in managing lands according to Wilderness Act policy.

Environmental groups, in comments on the previous draft, were particularly critical of another proposed plan that called for the expansion of several more alpine lakes to increase water storage. Some worried that popular trails or campsites would be flooded. The working group did not select that option, which would have had a larger impact on the wilderness areas, but would have given water managers more control as climate changes.