White Salmon River evolves amid mixed feelings

With Condit Dam gone, life goes on, but with many changes, challenges

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

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WHITE SALMON — Three and a half years have passed since Northwestern Lake drained like a bathtub in a single afternoon. Only traces of it remain.

On the sloping banks above the White Salmon River, a faint but distinct line marks the old water level. Unused stairways and docks sit high and dry, partially obscured by vegetation. Boaters have spotted a forgotten rope swing dangling impossibly high over the river below.

Northwestern Lake disappeared in October 2011 when Condit Dam was breached with a blast of dynamite. The dam was removed the following year as the White Salmon River began a remarkable recovery process that continues today.

The transition still generates mixed feelings around this close-knit community. Many cheer the return of migratory fish that now number in the thousands each year. Some cabin owners on the former lake, meanwhile, live in a state of uncertainty as their homes continue to shift and crack on unstable ground.

Condit Dam’s breaching and removal came only after a dozen years of legal wrangling and plenty of opposition. The drawn-out planning process divided people. Some wondered whether it would actually happen at all.

“For people to think through and live through that kind of landscape change is crazy — unprecedented, really,” said Margaret Neuman, executive director of the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group. “It did cause a lot of anxiety, and it was hard for the community in a lot of ways.”

Once the breach day arrived, a new reality began to set in. A variety of interests — environmental groups, cabin owners, white-water rafters, Native tribes and others — became engaged in a different way as the White Salmon River began to chart its course, Neuman said.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” she said. “But I think that there’s been a lot of community healing in the last three years, along with watershed recovery.”

Unstable ground

On a deck overlooking the White Salmon River, a small wooden sign captures the feelings of many of the residents who live around the former reservoir above Condit Dam. It reads simply, “Northwestern Lake RIP.” Like a gravestone, dates mark the lake’s nearly 100-year life.

“We miss the lake greatly,” said Penny Greenwood, chair of the Cabin Owners of Northwestern Lake Association. “It’s a passing and a mourning. We’ve all gone through that. … Some of us are still going through that.”

Erosion claimed three cabins that had to be demolished in the months after the dam was breached. Others saw their wells run dry when the water level suddenly dropped.

For a few other cabins, the impact was less immediate. Several residents now facing slow-motion damages say they’d like to see more accountability from PacifiCorp, the Portland-based utility that operated Condit Dam and still owns much of the land around the former reservoir. A few continue to make their case to PacifiCorp, which leases the land to dozens of cabin owners.

Christie Hessler first noticed changes at her cabin in 2012, the year the dam was fully removed. They’re hard to miss now.

Hessler has dug out part of a hillside behind her cabin that’s encroaching closer and closer to her walls. Inside the cabin, a large crack runs across the ceiling and wall in one area. (At one point, Hessler said she could see daylight through the opening.)

Hessler has also closely watched a water pipe that once sat adjacent to the cabin. Now the cabin is nearly on top of it, and Hessler has cut away a section of the wall to keep it from pushing against the pipe.

“I don’t know if the house is moving or the ground is moving or the pipes are moving,” Hessler said.

Hessler, who bought the cabin in 1999, has gotten estimates showing major repairs or even moving the cabin would cost tens of thousands of dollars. She’s gone to PacifiCorp for compensation, but instead found resistance.

Hessler cited a September 2014 letter from a licensed hydrogeologist stating it was “probable” that the draining of Northwestern Lake accelerated the earth movement behind Hessler’s cabin. PacifiCorp responded with a letter flatly asserting that, based on its own review, any soil movement in the area is not the result of the dam removal. “PacifiCorp considers this matter closed,” the letter read.

There’s no specific threshold for proving causation, said PacifiCorp spokesman Tom Gauntt. The utility has generally handled damage claims on a case-by-case basis, he said.

PacifiCorp has compensated numerous cabin owners for various damages since Condit Dam was breached and removed. Many of those cases were relatively clear-cut, Gauntt said. But determining definitive cause and effect isn’t always simple, he said.

“As you get further away in time, it gets harder to make that call in terms of why things happened,” Gauntt said.

Farther down the river, Kathy Chandler is looking for a long-term answer to the changes she’s noticed at her cabin. Unlike many neighbors, Chandler lives in her home year-round.

“I don’t want a Band-Aid,” Chandler said. “I want an understanding of what is actually happening and a solution to fix the problem.”

The most noticeable sign of damage at Chandler’s home is a crack in the foundation. There are also cracks on interior corners, and a few doors won’t shut properly.

In some cases, the changes are more than cosmetic. Hessler and other residents say they have safety concerns, particularly with trees still shifting on unstable slopes. PacifiCorp recently removed several trees on the slope above Hessler’s cabin, she said.

Even with the headache, Hessler and Chandler say they have no plans to sell their cabins. Hessler called the setting “perfect,” despite its transformation. She’s even at peace with the absence of Northwestern Lake.

“I like the free-flowing river. I like hearing it,” Hessler said. “It’s just that PacifiCorp needs to be responsible for the changes that are happening.”

Fish return

Change to the White Salmon River itself came quickly.

Condit Dam wasn’t even fully gone when the first migratory fish made their way past the blockade that cut off access to miles of habitat for almost a century. It was July 2012 when steelhead were spotted jumping at Husum Falls and BZ Falls, well upstream of the dam site.

In addition to steelhead, surveys have since tracked chinook salmon, bull trout and other species, Neuman said. More than 8,000 fall chinook salmon were tallied on the White Salmon River in 2014, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Spawning sites have been confirmed both above and below the former dam location.

“It’s really exciting to see these fish return,” Neuman said.

Fish were a central reason that Condit Dam was removed in the first place. PacifiCorp opted to decommission the hydroelectric facility rather than install costly fish-passage upgrades that would have been required for it to keep operating.

On the banks of the river, a once-barren canyon of mud is now covered with grass, brush and thousands of plastic tubes protecting young trees planted by PacifiCorp, the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group and the Yakama Nation.

The trees planted closest to the river appear to be thriving, already creating a line of shelter along the water’s edge. Some planted farther away from the river have died. So have several older trees stressed by the dramatic changes around them and other factors, including pests and dry weather, Neuman said.

PacifiCorp continues to monitor vegetation, sediment and the slopes along the river, Gauntt said. The company expects to submit a detailed status report to federal authorities early next year. But progress in the area is evident just in looking at it, he said.

“It’s starting to grow up,” Gauntt said.

The recovery has involved several parties, including the cabin owners association that officially formed in 2006, said Greenwood. Some of its residents have lived in the area for decades, she said. And many share the same interests as other groups, she added — a healthy river, a healthy forest and good access.

“We are all working together to make it useful for everybody, a wonderful recreation area for everybody, and a very safe area for everybody,” Greenwood said.

A new trail allows visitors to walk part of the river’s western bank that until 2011 was submerged by the lake. It opens areas that used to be reachable only by boat, Greenwood said. But with that access comes added responsibility to prevent damage and limit fire danger, she added.

The area will continue to evolve in the coming years, Neuman said. Formerly lake-front cabins could find themselves in a wooded setting someday. Trees and new growth could cover what’s now a landscape in transition.

“There’s going to be a forest here eventually,” Neuman said. “It’s going to take some time.”