Dam-free river plots new course

Changes unfold for the White Salmon now that Condit Dam is gone

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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White Salmon River

The White Salmon River has taken on a whole new identity in the months since the Condit Dam was removed.

HUSUM — Susan Hollingsworth had seen the photos. She'd seen the stories.

Then she saw it for herself — a fish leaping from the waters of the White Salmon River at Husum Falls, making its way up a newly opened waterway.

Suddenly, the river Hollingsworth knew better than any other became something totally different.

If you go

• What: “White Salmon River Homecoming Celebration” event.

• When: 2 p.m. Saturday (earlier community raft float begins at 9:30 a.m.)

• Where:: River Drifters, 856 Highway 141, Husum.

• What’s happening: Speeches from those involved in Condit Dam’s removal, White Salmon River advocates and tribal leaders, traditional salmon bake, other activities.

• More information: People can reserve spots or find out more through Wet Planet at 800-306-1673.

"It feels like the river was a little bit empty … this is like the piece that was missing," Hollingsworth said. "You can feel it now, that it's a little bit more complete."

The transformation began last October, when a blast of dynamite breached Condit Dam and released a free-flowing White Salmon River for the first time in nearly a century. Demolition crews began hammering away at the 125-foot-tall structure in earnest this spring.

But with Condit Dam now gone — workers removed the last of its concrete from the river earlier this month — all eyes turn to the White Salmon River and its continued evolution. No one knows exactly what will happen next. But a variety of players, many with different priorities and different interests, will help shape the White Salmon's future. A few of those voices will gather near the river for an event this weekend.

"Some people call it a celebration. Some people celebrate a little less," said Jaco Klinkenberg, a rafting guide at Wet Planet, a local white-water outfitter.

"I just hope we can all look forward together."

Instant change

Any doubt that the White Salmon River would change quickly was erased the moment an explosion opened a hole at the base of Condit Dam. The rush of water and sediment that followed drained Northwestern Lake in barely an hour — about five hours sooner than planners expected.

In the canyon of mud that remained, banks shifted by the minute. Entire slopes crept down toward the river carving its new path.

"Within that hour, it was like watching hundreds and hundreds of years of evolution," said Hollingsworth, a local rafting guide, kayak instructor and advocate.

Many observers focused on fish, and how they would respond to the new habitat once things settled down. Condit Dam stood 3.3 miles from the White Salmon River's confluence with the Columbia River, blocking all access farther upstream. The breach and dam removal meant miles of new White Salmon habitat for both salmon and steelhead.

Their return didn't take long. In July, wildlife officials confirmed migrating steelhead well past what remained of Condit Dam at the time. Since then, spring chinook salmon, fall chinook salmon and bull trout have all been spotted, said Jeanette Burkhardt, a watershed planner with Yakama Nation Fisheries.

Wildlife officials this month began regular surveys on the river that will continue through much of this fall. Each week, a group of national, state and tribal representatives will monitor progress and map where fish are spawning.

The first of those trips didn't turn up much. But surveyors did spot a handful of spawning locations. Even more activity has been reported closer to the former dam itself, where future surveys will likely focus, said Rod Engle, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For now, the work only captures the beginning of a potentially lengthy recovery process, he said.

"I think that these next few years will be really telling of how the system can — and if it will — repair itself in a short or long period of time," Engle said.

Burkhardt was among the first to see jumping steelhead at both Husum Falls and BZ Falls in July. It was her photo that made the media rounds as the sighting generated considerable buzz in the region. Two months later, the exhilaration still shows on Burkhardt's face.

"I was so thrilled to witness that, because I think you can't help but be excited," she said. "On a very sort of primal, instinctual level, you're rooting for them."

Fish were already familiar to the lower three miles of the White Salmon River, before it emptied into the Columbia on the Skamania-Klickitat county line. Anglers knew well a popular spot near the mouth of the White Salmon, considered prime real estate for steelhead fishing in the summer.

Not this year. For this area, the future is more murky. The White Salmon's mouth remains choked with sediment and debris that washed downstream after Northwestern Lake disappeared. A boat launch on the river's west bank now sits dry on a soft, spongy bed of muck. Shallow water keeps wayward logs clearly in view.

Some consider the fishing spot a lost cause. But Mother Nature may not be done sculpting it — particularly when the winter season brings stronger flows down the river.

New recreation

"Is the lower river open?"

Hollingsworth hears the question all the time. Her best answer is no, not yet. But for a large rafting community itching to test a new White Salmon River all the way to its mouth, the chance can't come soon enough.

On this day, Hollingsworth gets the question from another white-water guide, standing in Northwestern Park. That's where PacifiCorp's Condit Dam project site begins, and where public access to the White Salmon River ends.

PacifiCorp, the Portland-based utility that operated the dam and owns the surrounding land, has said access could open some time in October. Work continues on the slopes above the river, creating a possible danger for people below. And demolition crews weren't able to completely remove a log jam in the river before the deadline for in-water work passed Sept. 15. Workers will get back in to finish the job when they get the go-ahead from federal and state authorities, said PacifiCorp spokesman Tom Gauntt. Once that happens, the process should be relatively quick, he said.

In the meantime, rafters and kayakers eagerly await the all-clear announcement.

"There's a lot of excitement," Hollingsworth said. "I'm getting calls and emails: How about now? How about now?"

Phil Geffner has paddled the White Salmon River regularly for about 10 years. On Friday, the Portland resident walked up the Northwestern Park boat ramp, his kayak slung over one shoulder after finishing his most recent run.

The White Salmon's recent changes extend well beyond the reach of the former Northwestern Lake reservoir, Geffner said. Even miles upstream, the river constantly shifted during the past year, he said.

"Every time I went, the rapids were different," said Geffner, who owns Portland's Escape From New York Pizza restaurant. "It just kept changing."

Geffner sees his time on the river as therapeutic, an escape from the bustle of his life in Portland. The changes the area has experienced since last year — Geffner noted a salmon sighting of his own a few weeks ago — only adds to its allure for recreation, he said.

"It's nature," Geffner said. "It's a beauty to watch when you're in the river."

Lingering doubts

Not everyone celebrated the removal of Condit Dam.

When Northwestern Lake drained last year, dozens of cabins near the former reservoir saw their lake-front view turn to mud. Wells dried up when the water level dropped. Erosion in fast-forward put at least three cabins on unstable ground, one of which was bought out by PacifiCorp this year.

Skamania and Klickitat county leaders both opposed the dam removal, citing many of those impacts. The 2011 breach came only after years of legal wrangling.

PacifiCorp characterized the move as a business decision. The utility decided to decommission the hydroelectric facility rather than pay for costly fish passage upgrades. The subsequent removal ended up costing about $37 million, project leaders said.

Work will continue this fall while crews restore hillsides along the river, and plant some 14,000 trees near the former the dam, Gauntt said.

For the White Salmon River, plenty of questions remain. Some have wondered whether active recreation and new fish populations can co-exist, whether one will harm the other.

"I have no idea," said Engle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "The White Salmon River with rafting and salmon is something new."

The peak seasons of the two may be different enough to avoid some impacts, Engle said. Only time will tell. And many researchers will be watching closely.

Geffner figures this much: It doesn't matter what the studies and surveys say now. The White Salmon River will ultimately chart its own course forward.

"It just does what it's going to do," Geffner said. "That's the way it should be."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.