Despite the chill in the air Tuesday morning, Union Gap eighth-graders armed with shovels planted about 200 shrubs along a recently relocated Yakima Greenway path that runs past the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
These new rose and currant bushes are just a small part of the restoration efforts around the city’s multiphase, multimillion-dollar plan to expand the Yakima River floodplain by moving levees, the treatment plant’s outlet and a section of the Greenway path.
“Rivers naturally move over time, and we want to give (the Yakima River) more space to move,” Ryan Anderson, an engineer for the wastewater plant, told the students. “We’ve lost the natural side channel habitat. We need this floodplain back, for flood control and salmon habitat.”
The flood protection plan calls for pushing back the levee on the eastern side of the river. This will give the river more space to move and shift over time, which is good for flood control. But it means that the river could move away from the pipe that releases the city’s treated wastewater, Anderson said, or clog it with gravel.
The treatment plant plans to relocate the outlet pipe into a side channel, a smaller stretch of water that flows beside the main river. To do that, they first converted a 5-acre pond fed by groundwater and a flat field next to the river into a channel that will connect to the river. Eventually, it will function like natural habitat.
This floodplain restoration cost about $500,000 and the city secured some state and federal funds available for salmon habitat work to help pay for the project.
Although salmon and steelhead runs in the Yakima River system are far below historic levels, in recent years populations have begun to rebound. Thousands to tens of thousands of fish return annually to spawn in the basin. Habitat restoration is a key part of that recovery, according to scientists.
To improve the area for salmon, Anderson explained that this fall, crews removed culverts and reshaped the pond and its drainage into to the Yakima River so fish can get in and out. The work also created more deep holes that salmon like and will allow the water to flow faster, so that it will stay cold and clear, he said.
“Now, we just need trees to make shade,” Anderson said.
Lots of volunteer groups, from local fish enthusiasts to fifth-graders, have participated in planting efforts. Small cottonwoods already line the banks of the newly dug creek.
And shrubs were set out along the upland area next to the new asphalt path, waiting for the 61 Union Gap School students.
After a quick lesson in planting protocol, the students set out in small groups, slamming shovels into the rocky soil and wrestling thorny rose bushes free from their pots.
As they worked, a cyclist sped by on the new path. About 3,500 feet of the path was removed from along the river’s edge and relocated a couple hundred yards to the west, on the other side of the 50 new acres of floodplain and wetland habitat. The city estimated moving the path cost $290,000.
Union Gap social studies teacher Tim Kilgren said he hoped the students were learning both about the potential consequences of when humans alter the natural environment, like building levees to constrain rivers, and about the ongoing importance of protecting salmon.
Lilibeth Ramos, 13, and Maryam Sanchez, 12, were busy planting their third tree, but they agreed that it was fun to see what they had talked about in science class in the real world.
“It’s actually really fun,” Ramos said. “We’re learning how we can help trees and other organisms, too.”
Other students were enthusiastic about missing class and having a chance to help out instead. Brandon Worthington, 13, said he was having a great time as he swung a pickax to loosen up stubborn rocks in the soil.
“You get to help the community and not be in a classroom,” Worthington said.
Although about 5,000 trees have been planted this fall, Anderson said several thousand more remain for next spring to finish the restoration around the newly created side channels.
After this habitat work is completed in the spring, work can move on to the next phase of the project — relocating the pipes that release the treated water into these new channels.
YAKIMA, Wash. — Because her mother came out of the shadows, Anjelica Reyna has been able to shine.
Reyna, a graduating senior at Davis High School, says if her mother hadn’t made the agonizing decision to go back to Mexico, she wouldn’t be heading off to Washington State University this fall.
Reyna, who was born in Yakima 17 years ago, has a family story somewhat reminiscent of what Mitt Romney urged undocumented workers to do during the presidential campaign last year: self-deport.
And that’s basically what Reyna’s mother, Rafaela Gomez, did.
“My mom took a stand, and I’m grateful,” Reyna says.
Reyna’s father was killed in a car accident in Michoácan, Mexico, five months before she was born. Her mother was left with two children, Efren, 3, and Lourdes, 4, and not much hope for their future in their small farming village. But Rafaela had a brother in Yakima, who was here on a work visa, and he urged his sister to come to the United States to better provide for her children.
So when she was seven months pregnant, she sneaked across the border, her two children with her. Reyna was born two months later at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital.
In time, Rafaela married Austreberto Gomez, and they had a daughter, Samantha, now 10.
When Reyna was in sixth grade, her mother made the decision to go back to Mexico so they could return some day legally.
She had applied for citizenship but was denied. She could have continued to live here and dodge law enforcement, but she wanted her children to be able to go to college in this country someday.
“I think it was the right decision,” says Daniel Longoria, an economics teacher at Davis, who calls Reyna “a great kid.” Reyna’s mother, he says, “took a big risk with her family, and that allowed them to have opportunity later.”
Reyna agrees. “I’m definitely proud of her decision. I wouldn’t be here without that.”
The entire family moved to Michoácan six years ago. Even though Reyna is fluent in Spanish, it was difficult to maneuver in a strange land. “It was culture shock. The environment was so different,” she says.
After a year and a half, Rafaela Gomez was told she could return to this country as a permanent resident. Reyna, who came back near the end of seventh grade, has excelled in school since. She maintains a 3.5 GPA while being involved in volunteer work at Davis and working every day after school, 16 hours a week, in the latch key program at Union Gap School.
Reyna says her mother didn’t have the opportunity to go to school past the fourth grade in Mexico but always wanted more for her children. So far she’s been very successful: Lourdes graduated from WSU, and Efren from the Art Institute of Seattle.
In the fall, Reyna heads to Pullman to study psychology, with an eye toward becoming a high school counselor.
“What I love about Anjelica’s story,” Longoria says, “is they are the family you want here. They’re the kids you want in class. They’re living the American dream right here in Yakima.”
This is how Reyna sees it: “I’m so blessed to be here and finishing high school and going to college.”
• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Student uniforms can be a divisive issue for any school district. Several here in the Yakima Valley have strict dress codes. KIMA found one district saw dramatic improvement in bullying cases.
These students don't have the freedom to express themselves with what they wear at school. Uniforms have been the rule in Union Gap since the fall of 2009. Parents said the change was good.
"When they're focusing on school, they're focused on school,” said Juliana Moreno. “They're not focused on what I need to buy, what I need to have."
Teachers agreed. Stacey Benedetti has taught at Union Gap School for 13 years.
"It eliminates the distractions that come along with that status," said Stacey.
Parents and teachers KIMA spoke with said the school uniforms create a better learning environment. Kids pay less attention to what they wear and can focus more on academics.
KIMA pulled the numbers to see if there's a noticeable difference in not only student performance, but also behavior.
Union Gap School saw a big drop in bullying suspensions after requiring uniforms. Test scores are a different story. KIMA compared eighth and tenth graders for Union Gap and the only two schools in Yakima with a uniform policy in place for more than a year.
In reading, scores were lower for Washington Middle. Union Gap's were generally higher with one exception. Stanton also increased.
In Math, scores were lower for Washington Middle. Union Gap's first two years were lower than before uniforms, but were higher last year. Stanton scores increased as well.
"I see a huge change when the kids aren't so consumed with what they're wearing or what somebody else is wearing," said Juliana.
A change that has shown kids behave better, but doesn't necessarily translate to better grades. Grandview Middle School will students will have uniforms next school year.