It’s been nearly five months since a blast of dynamite breached Condit Dam, releasing the White Salmon River and draining Northwestern Lake in barely an hour. Dam owner PacifiCorp is now working toward its ultimate goal -- dismantling the dam itself, piece by piece, and helping the area find its new natural state.
Tom Hickey is a project manager for the Portland-based utility. Watching the work happen week to week, he doesn’t show the same excitement some outside observers have. He sounds more like a man with a job to do.
“It’s interesting,” Hickey said. “Good to see progress.”
On Friday, crews working under general contractor JR Merit continued a slow and steady process. Using a “hoe ram” machine perched atop the dam, workers pounded away at solid concrete one pulse at a time. A large portion of the structure was already gone, including the gate house on top. A pile of rubble collected on a platform below.
“Other than having a big canyon and a river behind it,” said PacifiCorp spokesman Tom Gauntt, “it’s sort of spectacularly unspectacular.”
Beyond the dam
Crews began the dismantling process in earnest in January, but the job extends well beyond the location of Condit Dam itself. Workers are also tearing down a mile-long flow line that once carried water from the reservoir to a powerhouse where electricity was generated. Most of that line -- a 13-foot-wide wooden pipe running alongside the river -- is gone. A path of pulverized wood lies in its place, serving as an impromptu access road for equipment driving over it for now.
PacifiCorp plans to remove that wood and take it to a landfill later this year. That will make room for the 35,000 cubic yards of concrete the utility expects to pull from the 125-foot-tall Condit Dam. Workers will simply spread the small chunks of concrete where the flow line used to run, Hickey said, covering it with dirt and fill. Crews will also remove a large surge tank near the end of the line. The defunct powerhouse, will be closed and sealed but remain in place.
The dam and its surrounding structures were put in place close to 100 years ago. PacifiCorp decided to decommission the facility rather than install costly fish-passage upgrades, calling it a “business decision.”
The entire dam is scheduled to be gone by Aug. 31
More than a view lost
Above Condit Dam, dozens of cabin owners around the former Northwestern Lake continue to watch the landscape shift before their eyes. Some have lost more than a lakefront view -- PacifiCorp this month removed one dock that had sunk due to shifting sediment below it. A deck attached to the same cabin may also have to come out, Hickey said.
“We don’t want some settling of your deck to cause damage to your house,” he said.
Another dock next door is already broken, pointing straight down on one end where Mill Creek meets the White Salmon River. Three other cabins -- none of them full-time residences, Hickey said -- are unoccupied and considered potentially unstable.
PacifiCorp notified cabin owners before the Oct. 26 breach that their docks may have to be removed, Hickey said. As for the three cabins in danger, the utility, which owns the land they sit on, is working with those cabin owners to find solutions. Gauntt said one option may involve PacifiCorp purchasing the cabins themselves as a last resort.
To stabilize shifting sediment, crews have begun smoothing slopes and using heavy equipment to move mud straight into the river. That allows PacifiCorp to gain a better handle on erosion that’s been much faster than expected in places.
“We certainly knew it would erode,” Gauntt said. “It’s how much and when.”
Meanwhile, a dispute over some residents’ well water remains unresolved. When Northwestern Lake disappeared, many wells in the area also saw their water levels drop. PacifCorp has offered to pay at least some of the cost to fix them, but cabin owners were cool to a proposed settlement offer late last year.
Some cabins still have enough water to keep their faucets working, said David Johnson, chair of the Cabin Owners of Northwestern Lake Association. Others have turned to bottled water. But conditions are far from settled, he said.
“This is high-water time,” Johnson said. “What’s going to happen when the rain stops?”
At Northwestern Park, about a mile and a half upstream of Condit Dam, orange fencing blocks an old boat ramp that once connected to the river. That will change in the coming months, when PacfiCorp plans to install new take-out points for boaters and rafters making their way down the White Salmon River.
Farther upstream, the river remains open for business, including popular rafting runs between BZ Corner and Husum Falls. Rafting season will pick up as spring continues, said Mark Zoller, owner of Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys.
Zoller said he and other rafters appreciate PacifiCorp’s plans to revamp Northwestern Park. Zoller said he looks forward to the day the White Salmon River opens up all the way down to its confluence with the Columbia River.
For now, the condition of the White Salmon River and its surrounding terrain remains very much a moving target. Mud and debris appear to have settled near the river’s mouth at the Columbia.
Public attention paid to Condit Dam has ebbed and flowed during the past several months, Gauntt said, none of it comparing to the hoopla surrounding last fall’s breaching. But that only marked one step in a long, slow, complex restoration project, he said.
The carefully orchestrated dynamite blast that started it? Gauntt chuckled.
“That’s the easy part,” he said.