Dam demolition has become the next big thing throughout the Pacific Northwest, but be careful not to jump to any conclusions. Any environmentalists who see this trend as the long-overdue rush toward saving endangered fish species would be about as shortsighted as any business leaders who decry the beginning of the end of cheap hydropower.
Truth be known, what is scheduled to occur Wednesday on the White Salmon River about 65 miles east of Vancouver is more of a simple business decision. Officials at electric power producer PacifiCorp have determined it will cost far less to destroy Condit Dam than to upgrade the 98-year-old structure to meet modern standards. That’s why 700 pounds of dynamite are scheduled to be detonated at noon Wednesday to complete a tunnel through the base of the 125-foot-tall dam. White Salmon water will begin flowing freely to the Columbia River 3.3 miles to the south.
Elsewhere in this corner of America, demolition work continues on the 108-foot Elwha Dam on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula and the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam 13 miles upstream. On the Rogue River in southern Oregon, four dams have been removed or modified. The Marmot Dam on the Sandy River east of Portland has been removed. So has the Powerdale Dam on the Hood River.
Judgments about dams not only vary greatly depending on individual circumstances, but more significantly are trumped by this simple fact: In most cases, the dams are simply too old to keep repairing or upgrading.
Another false conclusion about Wednesday’s scheduled demolition of the Condit Dam is that the event might be interesting to observe. To the contrary, it will be virtually impossible for an unauthorized visitor to get close enough to view the project. Roads and boating activity around the dam will be closed to the public. At the Columbia River, boat traffic will be kept away from the White Salmon’s mouth as sediment rushes from the tributary.
One more erroneous belief is that Wednesday’s work only affects the Condit Dam and the White Salmon River. True, about 32 miles of upstream river will be reopened to migrating fish, but it will come at the cost of significant short-term environmental damage from the swiftly flowing sediment. New river channels will be dangerous for many months, and access will be prohibited or tightly controlled. For at least a year, scientists and engineers will be unsure how the White Salmon will restructure itself.
No doubt, this will be a long-term victory for the salmon, and it will be one of several laboratories in the Northwest for habit-restoration research. Just be cautious about rushing to any positive — or negative — determinations.