Condit Dam: Life after the breach

5 years after dam’s removal, the White Salmon River recovers, but many people face uncertainty

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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Condit Dam timeline:

• September 1999: PacifiCorp signs a settlement with environmental groups, government agencies and tribes to remove the dam in 2006.

• February 2005: PacifiCorp announces an agreement with 23 conservation groups and state, federal and tribal agencies to extend Condit’s operation by two years for permitting.

• June 2011: After repeated delays and legal wrangling with state and federal agencies, dam removal is fast-tracked.

• Oct. 26, 2011: 125-foot-tall Condit Dam breached at its base with 700 pounds of dynamite. Northwestern Lake drains in less than an hour.

• July 2012: Yakama Nation Fisheries and U.S. Geological Survey scientists spot fish upstream of Condit Dam.

• September 2012: The last of Condit Dam is removed from the White Salmon.

• November 2012: The first legal rafting and kayaking trip beyond the former Northwestern Lake reservoir is taken.

• Summer 2015: Wild Pacific lamprey found at three locations above the Condit Dam site.

The White Salmon River continues a steady recovery since the removal of Condit Dam, but uncertainties linger for some stakeholders through the river’s healing process.

Constrained for a century by the 125-foot PacifiCorp hydroelectric dam, the White Salmon was freed on Oct. 26, 2011, when contractors detonated charges opening a tunnel through the base of the dam, draining Northwestern Lake and sending millions of gallons of water and an estimated 2.3 million cubic yards of sediment thundering downriver.

Five years later, the dam and reservoir are only a memory, though the side effects of the massive stream restoration project has troubled cabin owners living along the river. At the same time, fish returns meet and sometimes defy expectations, and boaters and outfitters are taking advantage of new opportunities in previously inaccessible stretches of river.

As the White Salmon continues to heal, they’re all looking to a new legacy on a new waterway.

‘A rough five years’

The last piece of Condit Dam was removed in September 2012, and the White Salmon now runs across bedrock through what once was the bottom of Northwestern Lake, but evidence of the reservoir remains. A horizontal stripe runs the canyon walls like a bathtub ring.

Not far from the water, the gradual slope of the riverbank is interrupted by a break signifying what was once the water’s edge. Now far from the water, boat docks hover over scrub plants and small trees like observation decks in front of residential cabins.

“It’s been a rough five years,” said Al Greenwood, co-chair of the Cabin Owners of Northwestern Lake Association. When Greenwood and his wife, Penny, bought their cabin about 10 years ago, there were 55 cabin owners in their association, now there are 48.

“We have a lot of cabins for sale out here. Some people miss the lake, others are sick of dealing with PacifiCorp,” he said.

PacifiCorp leases the land to the cabin owners. Almost as soon as the utility drained the reservoir, the water table dropped, causing some wells to go dry and the land to settle and shift. Some cabin owners saw cracks form and spread in their foundations and walls, and some had their plumbing shift around in their homes. PacifiCorp compensated a number of cabin owners for various types of damages or, in a few cases, bought them out.

Greenwood said the worst days of shifting and damaged cabins are likely over. Now the owners are making plans to form a cooperative to eventually buy the land from PacifiCorp. In the meantime, some cabin owners say they worry about potential fire risks in replanted areas, while others question the utility’s removal of trees from around their cabins.

The cabin owners have the right of first refusal should PacifiCorp ever decide to sell the land the cabins are on, but the utility will only sell to one buyer. Forming a cooperative to buy the land also could provide advantages they currently don’t enjoy, according to the Greenwoods. For instance, rather than allowing leases of just a couple of decades, a co-op could offer 99-year rolling leases to cabin owners, grant more freedom to develop the property and potentially use co-op dividends to improve roads and landscaping.

Additionally, they say they could manage the old lakebed for environmental conservation.

“What this would do is it would allow (cabin owners) to own the land jointly as an equal share of the co-op,” Penny Greenwood said. “We have a land purchase committee looking at the full purchase … but there are a lot of unknowns.”

Al Greenwood said the organization is trying to line up financing for the purchase, but with 25 years left on the lease, the effort is struggling because PacifiCorp hasn’t indicated when, or for how much, it’ll sell the property for.

“While we have the right of first refusal, and they have confirmed we have it … we don’t know if they’re ever going to sell it,” he said.

The organization’s goal is to make an offer for the land despite PacifiCorp’s silence on the issue.

Fire concerns

The former lakebed is filled with scrub plants and riparian trees that were planted to help revegetate the area. Most of the plants have done well, but in a few places the trees have died after several replantings. When the plants dry out in the summer months, the Greenwoods say they and other cabin owners worry about them as a fire hazard.

“It’s about 8 feet tall, and if someone were to drop a cigarette, we’d have fire roaring on up the hill,” Al Greenwood said. “That’s a major concern of ours, that they won’t let us to anything about it.”

Luke and Deborah Maddux bought their cabin 2 1/2 years ago. They said it had some damage, but said PacifiCorp refused to compensate them. Recently, a contractor working for PacifiCorp felled nine trees around their property, saying that a fungus was rotting them from the inside and they had to be removed before they became hazards.

Deborah Maddux, a biological and environmental science teacher, said she spoke with another arborist who questioned the methods the contractor used and suggested other tests and ways of controlling the fungal spread, if there was one. PacifiCorp wouldn’t pay for a second opinion, and when the trees fell, Maddux said they looked healthy and without any signs of a fungal infection.

The contractor left chunks of the downed trees around the property, which the Madduxes worried would further spread the fungal infection to other trees. When they brought their concern to PacifiCorp, they were told the fungus lives in the soil already, so having the contaminated wood there didn’t matter.

The couple thought about paying for their own report on the trees, but doing so costs hundreds of dollars, and it might not be worth the investment.

“If we got the report, PacifiCorp might remove the trees anyway,” Luke Maddox said.

Slope stability

Todd Olson, project manager with PacifiCorp, said the two surprises that stuck with him while working on the Condit Dam removal is how quickly the environment adapted and flushed downstream the century’s worth of sediment that had accumulated behind the dam.

The other surprise was the slope stability issues all the cabin owners faced and the subsequent acquisition and moving process.

“We thought all the cabins were going to be fine and nothing was going to be at risk,” he said.

Now the company’s work on the White Salmon is winding down. He hopes to submit a report to the regulators that PacifiCorp has fulfilled all its decommissioning to the fullness of its responsibility.

“I think we’re getting close to making that justification,” he said.

Still, that doesn’t mean the utility intends to sell the property until well after the decommissioning process is finished, he said.

For the past few years, PacifiCorp’s focus has been on monitoring the site and dealing with issues as they come up, Olson said. Recently, the utility has found a couple of slopes calving in unexpected areas.

“Overall, I think the riparian growth of the willows and alders and cotton have definitely helped with slope stability,” he said.

Olson said there are “small patches here and there” of plants that haven’t grown well, but overall, the company has met the goal of establishing at least 4.8 acres of wetlands. As to the dead or dry plants cabin owners are seeing around the lakebed, Olson said they’re part of a larger plan to stabilize and regenerate the soil.

“The seed mix that was put out there was a series of plants like something you might see after a big event like Mount St. Helens –plants that go in after a catastrophic event,” he said. “They’re pioneering plants. They grow pretty aggressively, and in the winter they die off.”

As for the trees near the cabins, PacifiCorp spokesman Tom Gauntt said in an email that the utility “routinely manages vegetation on property it owns, including property owned by PacifiCorp in the vicinity of the cabins.”

“Tree management activities include routine inspections by professionals who look for signs of damage or disease. In connection with recent inspections, nine trees near the cabins were found to have root rot and fungi. PacifiCorp removed these trees, consistent with professional tree management protocols. Root rot lives in the ground and may spread to and harm other nearby trees. As part of its ongoing vegetation management program, PacifiCorp will continue to monitor trees located on property owned by PacifiCorp in this area,” the email said.

Habitat recovering

Margaret Neuman, executive director of the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, said the river has changed significantly since the dam was removed, especially after a big flood last winter. While the breach smothered many of the old spawning grounds below the dam with silt, fish have made new ones.

“What we’re seeing now is those long-term recovery things happen,” she said.

Protecting threatened salmon and steelhead was a main driver behind removing the dam, which didn’t have a fish ladder. Prior to the breaching, wildlife officials considered native White Salmon River spring chinook, coho, and steelhead to be wiped out, with fall chinook at a very high risk of extinction.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Condit Dam blocked more than 30 miles of potential steelhead habitat, 4 miles of fall chinook salmon and nearly 10 miles of spring chinook habitat.

But almost as quickly as the hole was punched through the dam, fish started swimming through it. Today, migratory salmon, steelhead and even wild Pacific lamprey are being spotted above the old dam site.

Officials say fish have come back largely as predicted, but it may be too soon to tell if the fish have established themselves in the White Salmon.

“I think it’s still too early to tell what’s going on,” said Jeremy Wilson, fish biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’re just now seeing one generation return. … We need a couple of generations to see how the fish are returning.”

Washington wildlife officials counted a mixed batch of wild and hatchery chinook in the White Salmon last year, totaling 93 in the spring and 1,158 in the fall. That’s down from the 2014 wild and hatchery mix of 216 spring chinook and 1,689 fall chinook.

Although there were more fish in 2014, about 35 percent of spring chinook and only 0.5 percent of fall chinook spawned above the old dam site. Last year, 94 percent spring chinook, but just 0.1 percent of fall chinook, spawned above the dam.

“This is what you would expect,” Wilson said in an email. “Spring chinook, steelhead and coho should be the anadromous fish that really benefit from the newly opened up habitat in the upper watershed.”

Yakama Nation biologists observed between 50 and 60 spawning steelhead in the White Salmon last year.

Wilson and others say many of the fish seen in the White Salmon are hatchery fish using its colder water as a refuge during the hot summer when the main stem of the Columbia River warms up.

Researchers from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Yakama Nation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, PacifiCorp, and U.S. Geological Survey have monitored various aspects of the fish returns.

“There’s been a lot of different efforts looking at various aspects of fish recolonization,” said Greg Silver, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife. “It has received a lot of attention because it’s a unique situation, and everybody wants to get in on seeing what happens.”

The research hasn’t been without its challenges. The swift water and steep terrain of the White Salmon and its tributaries make studying the fish challenging during certain times of year. And it’s been difficult for researchers to secure funding for many studies.

“It’s been a challenge for all organizations involved,” said Bill Sharpe, a research scientist with the Yakama Nation. “Which is kind of frustrating, because it’s such a cool opportunity.”

Poles and paddles

Removing the dam was an environmental investment that impacts more than just fish. The decision also benefited the outdoor-recreation community, though when and by how much depends on who’s talking.

The area downstream from Condit Dam was long a favorite fishing hole for steelhead and salmon, but to the frustration of many anglers, it filled with silt after the dam breach.

Five years later, the area below the dam is still changing. Bob Rees, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, said he expects the breach will prove to be a long-term benefit for the fishing community.

Rees describes his 1,600-member organization as “a conservation organization that loves to fish.”

“We get pretty excited about dam-removal projects. It opens miles and miles of habitat and returns river function to the way it’s supposed to be,” he said.

He said the dam breach disrupted a popular fishing area, but anglers have already been “intensely constrained” by depleted fish stocks. While the breach moved tons of silt downstream, fishermen can adjust in the short term while the fishery improves over the long term.

“I think it’s a minor expense for a large return on investment later,” he said.

For whitewater rafting outfitters and recreational kayakers, it was an investment that paid off almost immediately.

Todd Collins, co-owner of Wet Planet Whitewater, was one of the first people allowed to float down the White Salmon when the dam removal was complete.

“It is hands-down the most beautiful section of the river, and the White Salmon is beautiful everywhere,” he said.

Collins’ company and other outfitters benefited from the public’s interest in the White Salmon during the removal process. After the dam was removed, they found a new economic opportunity in offering their clients a new expedition on the river’s lowest section.

But when Collins thinks about the long term, and the prospect of more fish and more user groups migrating to the White Salmon, he’s unsure of how long that benefit will last.

“The long term could be a challenge,” he said. “I never knew there were so many groups out there dedicated to fish, but there is a lot of different groups interested in using the river.”

He worries about paddlers and fishermen crowding each other and the possibility of paddlers not being allowed on certain stretches of the river during certain times of the year.

“There will be things to work out with the different user groups,” he said.

Neuman strikes a more optimistic tone about user groups sharing the water. They just have to know and respect one another’s needs and interests.

“These issues are not unique to the White Salmon,” she said. “Boaters boat rivers all over where there’s anglers and landowners. … It always seem to work out.”