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Success of White Salmon River restoration a blueprint for other Northwest dams

Dam was breached 10 years ago, the largest dam removal in the U.S. at that time

By , Columbian staff writer
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6 Photos
Hood River fishermen Eli Schroppel, left, and Matt Sweeting hope to get a bite as they fish in the White Salmon River.
Hood River fishermen Eli Schroppel, left, and Matt Sweeting hope to get a bite as they fish in the White Salmon River. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WHITE SALMON — The area around the White Salmon River serves as a time capsule showing the river’s evolution since the Condit Dam was removed 10 years ago, allowing it to flow freely again.

Outsiders might not be able to see the dam’s imprint on the land at first glance. The White Salmon roars as it glides between rock faces, and green vegetation covers the surrounding land.

Upon closer examination, though, a dark contour in the hill snakes several meters above the river, standing as an artifact of the former shore of Northwestern Lake.

As the river healed after nearly a century of captivity, so did the ecosystems around it. Fish returned, plant species were introduced and flourished, as did the pollinators that arrived shortly after. The biodiversity surrounding the White Salmon expanded, as did the conversation regarding river and cultural restoration.

Ten years later, locals and those involved in the area’s recovery are upbeat about how the White Salmon has benefitted since its release, as well as how it serves as a model for future dam removals.

Dam days

The Condit Dam blocked the flow of the White Salmon River about 3 miles upstream from the confluence of the Columbia River. It was built in 1912 to produce energy to supply a paper mill in Camas and the nearby areas from Washougal to Portland. This altered steelhead and salmon habitats, blocking natural fish migration patterns in the White Salmon River.

In 1996, the federal government ordered PacifiCorp, the dam’s owner, to incorporate a fish ladder to allow upstream and downstream migrations of salmon. However, the utility deemed the restorations to meet environmental codes were too expensive and decided to decommission and remove the structure instead.

On Oct. 26, 2011, contractors detonated explosives inside a tunnel bored through the base of the 125-foot-tall hydroelectric dam, and millions of gallons of water erupted through the breach, draining Northwestern Lake in 30 minutes and disgorging about 2.3 million cubic yards of accumulated sediment.

It was the largest dam removal in the U.S. at that time.

What took a year to build with basic tools took about a year to dismantle with modern machinery. Bits and pieces of the dam were chipped away and removed after the breach; the last remnants were hauled away in September 2012.

In 2019, the Yakama Nation won the right of first offer for 289 acres of land along the White Salmon that PacifiCorp still owns from the Condit Dam site downriver to where it empties into the Columbia River. It does not include property upriver where cabin sites and Northwestern Park are located.

There aren’t any plans to sell the property soon, said PacifiCorp spokesperson Tom Gauntt.

Revisiting the breach

Environmental groups and policymakers have used the White Salmon’s success post-breach as an illustration of how dam removal can be lucrative for restoration.

In mid-October, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee announced they would pursue processes to aid salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin, which included potentially breaching Lower Snake River dams.

The move addresses the central element to yearslong battles between conservationists and energy companies. The four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River have been blamed for endangering salmon and steelhead fish species.

“For the region to move forward, the time has come to identify specific details for how the impacts of breach can, or cannot, be mitigated,” they wrote in a joint statement.

State and federal recommendations will come no later than July 31, 2022, according to the statement.

Murray and Inslee aren’t the only state officials pushing for dam removal. In late-May, Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, proposed a plan to breach the hydroelectric dams and rebuild salmon runs to save the species from extinction.

Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper executive director, said Condit Dam’s removal illustrated hope and propelled an initiative for removing other dams. Free flowing rivers restore natural habitats, he said, and provide opportunities for local economies through strengthened fisheries.

“There’s no reason we can’t do that on the Snake River,” VandenHeuvel said.

However, there are reservations when it comes to comparing White Salmon’s success story to other potential dam removals.

Joe Zendt, Yakama Nation fish biologist, said the Lower Snake River dams are completely different from the Condit Dam and can’t be used as a carbon-copy model. There needs to be caution when formulating arguments that support using the Condit Dam’s success story for larger dams.

Despite his hesitation, Zendt said removing the human structures along natural waterways can have a massive impact on ecological restoration.

“We’ve now seen fish in areas they haven’t been in 100 years,” he said.

Ecological recovery

Glacial runoff from Mount Adams make the White Salmon a cold-water refuge for salmon and steelhead populations, which need cool water to successfully spawn.

Coho, fall chinook and spring chinook salmon, winter and summer steelhead, and Pacific lamprey have all returned to the river, Zendt said. The salmon and steelhead species take advantage of the new spawning opportunities, such as those found in gravel pits, made available by the dam removal.

Chinook are swimming to areas in previously vacant streams to spawn upstream from where the Condit Dam stood, which indicates the fish are naturally recolonizing, Zendt said. Researchers also found new fish, including trout, have started coming from nearby rivers and hatcheries to spawn.

Fish populations have tended to fluctuate after the initial surge following the dam’s removal, said Elise Olk, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist.

Terrestrial improvements

The environment’s recovery is still progressing, especially as it pertains to the surrounding landscape.

As Yakama Nation watershed planner Jeanette Burkhardt walked through the empty Northwestern Lake basin last week, a smile spread across her face as she stopped often to assess tree and shrub growth.

She looked for signs of wildlife, such as chew marks on a black cottonwood tree left by beavers and hoof marks stomped into the ground from deer. Burkhardt stroked a ponderosa pine’s needles and rubbed a chokecherry’s leaves between her fingers — all while exclaiming how resilient the plants have become.

Burkhardt said the vegetation growth along the White Salmon have exceeded her expectations — because she didn’t have any to begin with. Due to all the sediment that flowed from the dam’s reservoir, healthy soil seemed hard to come by.

Core samples taken in 2013 showed that the coarse sediment, which was underwater for 100 years, had little organic matter and was full of sulfur, she said. They had to begin from a stinky baseline when helping the ecosystem improve.

“The plants had every type of hurdle to jump,” Burkhardt said. “They overcame harsh winds, direct sun, drought and frost heaves — it’s a testament to how resilient the plants are.”

Volunteers and Yakama Nation staff planted 7,000 plants in 2.8 acres on Northwestern Park near the head of the reservoir. PacifiCorp planted about 14,000 in about 60 acres.

The Yakama Nation selected 34 varieties of plants with cultural value to the tribe, meaning they could be harvested for medicine, food and ceremonies, Burkhardt said. They anticipated high plant mortality because of the harsh landscape and soil composition, so they planted densely to support biodiversity and jumpstart the area’s growth.

The ecosystem rebounded quicker than scientific modeling projected it would. Although there were trees and shrubs that had a zero percent survival rate, many of the species matured and are spreading their seed. Better yet, the lush landscape has been joined by other plants, fungi and pollinators. This presents hope for the environment’s future, as more restoration projects in the basin are underway.

“It’s remarkable that some of our native species have made it this far,” she said.

At first glance, the area’s small trees and shrubs may not seem like much. However, Burkhardt said, what seems like a lifetime to humans is a brief moment in nature.

Rafting, fishing

The White Salmon’s gradient drops around 50 feet per mile, while the gradient for commercial white-water rafting is about 12 to 15 feet per mile. In other words, it’s fast water.

“You can’t outswim this,” said Mark Zoller, owner of Zoller’s Outdoor Odyssey, a rafting shop in Klickitat County along the river.

Zoller said he remembers the breach like it was yesterday, as the anticipation he felt before the detonation almost amassed the explosion’s echo that lingered in his body.

As he walked along the dam, Zoller looked straight through the tunnel trough at its base. He said the upstream side of the dam oozed with sediment that resembled “chocolate pudding,” while water forcefully rushed downstream on the other side.

After the dam removal, Zoller anticipated an influx of people wanting to raft the river. However, business wasn’t influenced by the event — he got his regulars and a few stragglers, but there wasn’t a huge boom.

“Was there more business after the breach? Not really,” Zoller said. “Is there more fun on the river because of the dam removal? Absolutely.”

Similarly, the dam removal didn’t change the fishing culture in White Salmon’s waters. Although there were fewer fish when the dam was standing, it was easier to catch them. Now that the White Salmon’s natural flow is restored, he said, the water is faster and it’s harder to catch fish – despite there being more.

The future

Jeremy Takala, Yakama Nation tribal councilman, said when you interrupt something in your body, there will be problems that affect your health until you return it to its natural state. Similarly, the dam removal enabled the river to become what it once was.

“The water is like the arteries of the Earth,” Takala said. “We got to watch the return of the salmon to our tributaries. It created a good feeling in our hearts as we walked along the streams.”

Condit Dam’s removal didn’t only restore the natural environment, but it also strengthened the White Salmon’s cultural significance. Takala said taking care of the river sustains the Yakama Nation’s ability to access “first foods” through fishing.

“We’re meant to take care of these foods, with our main source being the salmon. It’s up to us to make sure that future generations will be able to fish,” he said.

There are still matters to be addressed, however. The effects of climate change are becoming more pervasive and are creating observable changes in and around the White Salmon.

Olk said researchers are beginning to see warmer water conditions in the lower Columbia River, as well as extremely low water levels in the fall. This puts fish populations at a risk of declining despite their resurgence post-dam removal, she said.

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.

It’s raining more than snowing, berries aren’t as fruitful as past years, and ticks and viruses are more common in game meat, Takala said. The free-flowing White Salmon River presents a hopeful future for the land and communities, but there must be more action taken to mitigate these issues.

“We advocate to honor, protect and restore,” he said. “We’ve been addressing these problems, but we’re looking for more support.”

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