PacifiCorp has lifted access restrictions on the lower White Salmon River, opening the entire waterway to recreation and rafting for the first time.
The long-awaited announcement comes just more than one year after the breaching of Condit Dam, which long severed the lower three miles of the river from the rest of the watershed. But with the dam now gone, and other work in the area winding down, PacifiCorp on Monday announced the reopening of the river below Northwestern Park.
That means capable rafters, kayakers and other paddlers are free to make runs all the way to the mouth of the White Salmon, where it converges with the Columbia River near Underwood.
“This has been a long journey for PacifiCorp and the partners in the settlement agreement that led to the Condit Dam removal,” PacifiCorp project manager Todd Olson said in a statement. “Work still remains in restoring area vegetation and demobilizing equipment from the work area, but this has been a very successful project.”
Crews finished removing the 125-foot-tall dam from the water in September. But restrictions remained in place as work continued in the project area and along the banks of the White Salmon River. Meanwhile, local white-water outfitters eagerly awaited the all-clear below the dam’s former location.
Last week, crews under lead contractor JR Merit removed a large logjam that complicated passage farther down the river, according to PacifiCorp. But even with major obstacles gone, officials urged caution, describing significant rapids “for experts only” below the former dam site.
Kayak and raft guide Todd Collins was among those who helped assess the river’s condition before it opened below the work site. Collins last ran it Friday in a kayak, he said.
“It’s beautiful,” said Collins, co-owner of local white-water outfitter Wet Planet. “It’s pretty amazing to see, but it’s definitely not without its hazards.”
Wet Planet isn’t sending commercially guided trips down the length of the White Salmon just yet, Collins said. Below the old dam site, the river squeezes into “the narrows,” where a tighter channel and vertical rock walls create a much different environment that’s challenging to navigate, he said.
Wet Planet and others will likely use the winter to feel out conditions and decide how to handle the new river commercially, Collins said.
Condit Dam was breached with a blast of dynamite in late October 2011, releasing a free-flowing White Salmon River for the first time in nearly a century. The breaching also drained Northwestern Lake and began a remarkable series of changes that continue to reshape the local landscape.
Erosion rapidly shifted banks above the dam, sending a huge amount of sediment downstream toward the mouth of the White Salmon and jeopardizing some cabins in the area. Migrating steelhead and salmon have already been spotted well above the dam’s former location, as wildlife officials and other observers monitor their progress.
Some access restrictions will remain in place along riverbanks, particularly in places recently planted with native vegetation, according to PacifiCorp. And changes are still happening below the dam site as sediment and debris work their way through, Collins said.
PacifiCorp decided to remove Condit Dam instead of installing costly fish passage upgrades to the hydroelectric facility. The Portland-based utility and other parties reached a settlement agreement in 1999, but carried out the breaching and removal only after years of legal wrangling.
For paddlers, access to a new White Salmon River couldn’t come soon enough.
“There’s quite a bit of excitement,” Collins said.