In Our View: Trust the Scientists

Breaching of Condit Dam leaves many questions for the experts

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Each time mankind extracts answers from stubborn science, more questions surface to tantalize us. The pursuit of knowledge becomes a maddening, whack-a-mole dilemma. That’s what made Wednesday’s breach of the Condit Dam so interesting. For all the expertise and planning poured into the puncturing of the antiquated dam on the White Salmon River, there remains much about the present — even more about the future — that we don’t understand.

For example, it took less than an hour for what was left of Northwestern Lake — the reservoir contained for 98 years by the dam — to drain after the dam was breached. Original estimates were up to six hours. And, even though 33 miles of new habitat will be opened upstream for migrating fish in the coming years, it’s uncertain how long that will take, or if it will even succeed.

There’s only one way to find out: Let the scientists do what they do best. Neither pundits nor principalities have been able to out-think scientists through the ages; there’s no reason to expect that to change. Painstaking scientific research takes time. Forty-four miles northwest of Condit Dam, at Mount St. Helens, scientists still are learning new lessons about the eruption of three decades ago. Thus, it will be a long time before we know what dam breaching will do to the White Salmon River.

One informed prediction is that the river upstream will more closely resemble its original state as a fishery. But some scientists wonder if it will be worth the sacrifice. Many of those experts have been interviewed by Al Thomas, outdoor writer for The Columbian. Thomas wrote in his Thursday column: “Nobody really knows how productive — or not — the watershed will be. I think it’s likely a great summer steelhead fishery will be lost as the river mouth silts in and becomes marginally fishable.” That mouth of the White Salmon at its confluence with the Columbia River has consistently ranked among the state’s top fisheries for summer steelhead. The steelhead gather in this cool-water oasis en route to distant spawning grounds in Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and Idaho.

That mouth underwent a dramatic change about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday as the water, sediment and debris jettisoned by Northwestern Lake arrived at the Columbia River. Thomas observed “a kaleidoscope of browns and beiges. Logs and mats of woody debris were floating under the state Highway 14 bridge.”

Thomas is worried. “I think it is questionable whether new populations of salmon and steelhead will be generated. I hope I am wrong.”

And if he is, 950 to 1,225 coho salmon could move into 21 miles of the White Salmon upstream, joined by 800 to 1,000 fall chinook on eight miles of the river, 300 to 350 summer steelhead along 33 miles and 600 to 800 spring chinook on 13 miles. Those estimates come from fish biologists, the experts. But they’re still just estimates.

Of course, breaching the Condit is about more than just changing the ways we fish and the numbers of migrating fish. For power producer PacifiCorp, it’s about saving money. Removing the dam — even at $33 million — is cheaper than modernizing it. For environmentalists, it’s about restoring a river run. For economic development visionaries, it was about hopes for more visitors to the valley. For lovers of the deceased lake, it’s the loss of a recreational wonderland.

None of those answers will arrive soon, however. Even as rapidly as Northwestern Lake drained Wednesday, many years will be needed to understand what really happened.

As those years unfold ever so slowly, we all would be wise to pay polite regard to the melodrama of impassioned advocates, but listen more intently to objective experts. Trusting scientists is a fail-safe strategy.