WHITE SALMON — Davis Washines watched in awe, then bowed his head. He wiped tears from his eyes.
The sight of the White Salmon River rushing freely through the base of Condit Dam — released for the first time in 98 years Wednesday by a ground-shaking detonation of 700 pounds of dynamite — set off a rush of emotion for Washines and dozens of others watching on a live video feed, just a short walk from the blast site.
Washines, a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, said he was overwhelmed. He thought of his brother and other tribal leaders who worked to achieve a free-flowing White Salmon River but never lived to see the day it happened.
When the torrent of water was finally unleashed, he said, it reminded him of wild horses running free.
“The water just took off,” Washines said. “It was anxious to get going.”
Wednesday’s historic breaching ends more than a dozen years of planning and legal wrangling since a settlement to remove Condit Dam was reached in 1999. The carefully orchestrated blast opened up a PacifiCorp-owned dam that has blocked the river since 1913. It also entirely drained Northwestern Lake, the reservoir behind the dam, in less than an hour — five hours faster than project planners expected. Only a canyon of mud, tree stumps and debris remained as the river began to carve out its new path along the bottom. Within a year, the rest of the dam’s structure should be removed.
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The day began with boats patrolling the mouth of the river, state troopers blocking the highway that runs along its east bank and a helicopter scouring the canyon, looking for trespassers. In the hours leading up to the explosion, access to the lower river was sealed off.
At Northwestern Lake, the partially drained reservoir behind the dam, 59-year-old Jerry Bryan took a walk to the bridge to look out on a body of water he has known and loved all his life.
“It’s kind of a hard thing to get used to,” he said. “I was born and raised right here and spent all my youth up here fishing with my brother. My parents would let us go and turn us loose. There was a little boat launch, and you could rent a rowboat and paddle all over the reservoir.”
A lot of the new residents of the small community by the reservoir are celebrating, Bryan said, “but everybody who is local is sorry to see it go. We had a reservoir that fed a little dam. It was like a perpetual motion machine. It required very little maintenance. It’s just tough to see it go away.”
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PacifiCorp and tribal leaders marked the occasion with speeches and a traditional American Indian song near the top of the dam before the scheduled noon blast. Some characterized it as bittersweet — a joyful day for some, perhaps a day of mourning for others.
As PacifiCorp project coordinator Todd Olson began to wrap up the ceremony, a loud horn from the blast site interrupted him. The five-minute warning.
Olson fell silent. So did the audience.
The speeches concluded, and then another horn sounded. The one-minute warning.
The blast came at 12:07 p.m. A muffled boom shook the ground, and the gathering watched on one of three screens as an initial blast shot out from the bottom of the dam, then a wave of water behind it. Some onlookers let out a cheer, or a simple “wow.”
For several minutes, the gathering hardly flinched. People sat still, spellbound by the power of the water and sediment gushing downstream.
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Upstream at the town of Husum, 350 invited guests crowded into a large tent at a party hosted by several conservation groups to watch the video feed of the breaching.
“It’s interesting to hold a celebration of something we don’t control,” said Rich Bowers of the Bellingham-based Hydro Reform Coalition as the scheduled noon breach time came and went. “We’re here to celebrate if it goes at noon or 1.”
As he spoke, a puff of cement dust emerged from the base of the dam, morphing immediately into a black billowing plume. Water and sediment from the reservoir rushed through the hole, sprayed up and boiled down the steep-sided canyon in huge waves and surges. A roar of amazement and applause filled the tent. Parents held their small children up to see the images unfolding on the screen.
“I don’t know what to say,” exclaimed Heather Herbeck, who works at Wet Planet, a white-water outfitter in town. “The river is my front yard. I don’t have any words to express.”
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Executing Wednesday’s blast involved a complicated coordination of engineers, planners, contractors and several law enforcement agencies, Olson said. Crews communicated by radio for much of the morning as blast time neared.
Officers from Washington State Patrol, Skamania and Klickitat counties’ sheriff’s offices and the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission kept constant watch to keep the blast area clear, plus more than three miles of the White Salmon River between the dam and the Columbia River.
Workers placed the dynamite in the blast hole — drilled and blasted gradually during the past few months — on Tuesday afternoon, Olson said. Crews then guarded it overnight until blast day.
For PacifiCorp, the Condit Dam removal was fundamentally a “business decision,” said company president Michael Dunn. Removing the dam will cost about $33 million, but the price of keeping the hydroelectric facility functioning and up to date simply outweighed its benefits, he said. But Dunn noted that for many people, the dam’s removal symbolized much more — for better or worse.
“Condit Dam is a part of history,” Dunn said.
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At the river’s mouth, the brown sediment-choked tide arrived at about 12:35 p.m. It carried whole logs, stumps and rafts of woody debris down to the Highway 14 bridge and under the bridge into the Columbia River, where it formed a mat of debris. Jet skiers and recreational boaters moved in to watch. A surge of clear green water from the Columbia temporarily diluted the thick brown flow, pushing some logs and stumps back upriver, but by 3:30 p.m. the river’s mouth was a collage of textured chocolate browns.
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Back at Wet Planet, in Husum, the celebration was winding down by 2:30 p.m. Jay Letto, a resident of the White Salmon area, had been at the top of the dam for the breaching. He was marveling at how efficiently the explosives had done their work.
“It emptied the reservoir so quickly, it took out more sediment than they ever expected,” he said. “It worked amazingly well. It’s going to set a new era for dam removal.”
The speed with which Northwestern Lake drained came as a surprise even to PacifiCorp’s Olson. It’s unclear why initial estimates missed the mark by so much, he said, but that didn’t appear to affect the breaching outcome.
“The result’s the same,” Olson said. “It just happened faster.”
The removal of Condit has been controversial, Letto acknowledged. But he said in the long run it will be worth it.
“Short-term impact, everything dies,” he said, but the fish and other aquatic life that didn’t survive the sediment flush “sacrificed their lives for the good of the ecosystem.”
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Amid a mostly celebratory mood near the dam Wednesday, potential benefits to fish and wildlife were high on many people’s minds. Tribal leaders noted the presence of lampreys that could see a boost in the new landscape.
Underwood resident Sally Newell, vice chair of the advocacy group Friends of the White Salmon River, said Condit Dam’s removal will be crucial to restoring healthy salmon runs to the newly freed waterway. Before the blast, Newell held one of five painted cardboard cutouts in the shape of a salmon, each later lined along a fence in the viewing area.
“It’s so exciting,” Newell said. “I wondered if I’d live to see this day. I really did. There were times when it didn’t look like it would happen.”
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Dennis White stayed home and worked on his farm in the upper White Salmon valley on Wednesday.
In 1976, White helped found Friends of the White Salmon to fight a proposal by the Klickitat Public Utility District. The utility proposed to build eight dams and diversions on the upper White Salmon, extending all the way north to the Trout Lake Valley.
“After six years of my leadership, we defeated the dams,” he said.
The founders had two other goals, he said: Designation of the river as a federally protected Wild and Scenic River, and the removal of Condit Dam.
The 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act designated the middle section of the White Salmon as a national scenic river.
As of Wednesday, he said, “We’ve accomplished all three.”’