Wells dry up as reservoir is drained

Breached dam’s owner to help those upstream

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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photoHomes stand near the shores of Northwestern Lake before Condit Dam was breached, Wednesday, Oct. 26.

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photoThe draining of Northwestern Lake after Condit Dam was breached on Oct. 26 has affected the wells that serve residents of nearby homes.

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Some cabin owners near Northwestern Lake, the former reservoir on the White Salmon River, have seen their wells run dry since the breaching of Condit Dam in late October.

PacifiCorp, the dam’s owner, became aware of the problem over the past week, said Tom Gauntt, spokesman for the Portland utility. After consulting with cabin owners, the company has agreed to assist them.

“We’re going to help them get to their water,” Gauntt said.

A total of 53 cabin owners lease land from PacifiCorp along the river or fronting the former Northwestern Lake, which drained within a couple of weeks after the dam’s breaching. Pacificorp breached, and will dismantle, the dam because it was cheaper to do so than to try to restore passage for wild fish.

The White Salmon, now a swift-moving river, has shifted east, exposing an expanse of mud and sediment for the first time in 98 years.

The cabins are served by a Class B water system. As many as seven houses draw water from a single well. In all, the community is served by 11 registered wells, Gauntt said, but there may be older, unregistered wells too.

The 92-acre reservoir, owned by PacifiCorp, kept the water table relatively stable, but when it drained, the water table dropped, leaving some pumps — and docks — high and dry.

Not all the wells are dry, Gauntt said. “There’s dry, and then there’s adequate water supply.” The pumps, like the cabins, belong to the homeowners, but the utility will step up, he said, “recognizing there will be different solutions for the different wells.” Some wells may need to be replaced, he said, and individual cabin owners will have to agree on the fixes for shared wells.

Gauntt said it’s too soon to estimate how much it will cost to restore water to cabin owners.

“It will be something that is equitable and helps them along the way,” he said.

Ken and Clara Parker own a riverfront cabin but don’t live on the river year-round. They take water for bathing and washing dishes directly from the river. Although they had to buy a new pump after the dam breaching, “So far, we haven’t had any problems,” Clara Parker said.

Recent heavy rains have helped to flush sediment from the reservoir to the river’s mouth. Flows increased by 50 percent as a result of the intense Nov. 22 storm that dropped two inches of rain on Vancouver.

Some cabin owners are concerned about erosion of the old lake bed and the carving of steep canyons as the sediment continues to move downstream.

It’s hard to know how much sediment has moved, Gauntt said.

“The telling thing will be in a couple of weeks,” when contractors conduct special aerial surveys that will reveal the topography of the river and show how it has changed, he said. The surveyors will use Lidar equipment, which is an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging.

“The bottom of the river keeps deepening,” Gauntt said. “It’s cutting through all those years of sediment and it will eventually reach something it can’t cut through as easily.” Eventually, he said, the delta at the mouth of the White Salmon “is where the heaviest stuff is going to land.”

The Parkers’ lot is protected from erosion — so far — by a retaining wall, but Clara Parker worries about how the fast-changing river channel will affect them and their neighbors in the months to come.

“It’s too soon to tell,” she said. “The lake has not been gone long enough.”

“We’ve been up here 45 years,” she added. “It’s the saddest thing we’ve ever seen happen.

“People used to fish off their docks. Now they can’t go fishing.”