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News / Northwest

Habitat restoration continues on White Salmon River

Condit Dam was removed in 2011, restoring the river

By Jurgen Hess, Columbia Insight
Published: October 20, 2022, 5:59am
4 Photos
Yakama Nation dancer Moses Walsey, wearing a bald eagle headdress, helps commemorate the removal of Condit Dam.
Yakama Nation dancer Moses Walsey, wearing a bald eagle headdress, helps commemorate the removal of Condit Dam. (Photos by Columbia Insight) Photo Gallery

Unless you live in or around the Columbia River Gorge, you may not have heard of the Condit Dam on Washington’s White Salmon River.

For a century, the 44-mile-long White Salmon had been blocked by the 125-foot PacifiCorp hydroelectric dam, located upstream from the town of Underwood.

On Oct. 26, 2011, contractors detonated charges opening a tunnel through the base of the dam. The opening emptied Northwestern Lake behind the dam and sent millions of gallons of water and tons of sediment downriver.

Engineers expected that upon breaching the Condit Dam, the lake would drain in six hours. It drained in 30 minutes.

Among other things, the event heralded a rebirth for anadromous fish populations in the White Salmon River watershed.

The dam’s removal was of particular importance to the local Yakama Nation.

On Oct. 7, the Yakama Nation sponsored a celebration of the Condit Dam removal at Northwestern Park on the White Salmon River.

About 200 people attended, including tribal members, biologists, environmental activists and scientists. They gathered on a flat about 500 feet from the free-flowing water.

Free-flowing future

Yakama Nation Council member Tony Washines opened the event with a tribal prayer.

“It was a great blessing when the dam went out,” he said. “We retained our fishing rights to the White Salmon River under the 1855 Treaty.”

In all, 13 speakers represented the Yakama Nation, local government, PacifiCorp, U.S. Forest Service and citizens’ groups.

“It’s salmon versus dams. Dam removal should be on the table,” said Yakama Nation Fish and Wildlife Committee Chair Jeremy Takala. “Salmon are our food source. People need to be mindful of the First People on this land.”

“Children only have memories of a free-flowing river,” said White Salmon Mayor Marla Keethler.

PacifiCorp’s Todd Olson was the project leader for the dam removal. He spoke about the worldwide interest in the project; representatives of 32 countries had watched online when the dam was blown.

“There were seven dams proposed on the White Salmon River all the way to the community of Trout Lake,” said Pat Arnold, chair of Friends of the White Salmon River. “We fought them all. People have to respond to threats to the river. As you get involved in protection, your heart grows, your soul grows.”

Significant controversy attended the removal of the dam, which had created a 92-acre reservoir known as Northwestern Lake.

Summer homes were built on the shoreline of the idyllic setting. Some homeowners sued to retain the dam. But after PacifiCorp created a financial settlement, opposition evaporated.

“I really like the transition to a free-flowing river,” said one longtime homeowner who attended the event. “The restoration work is wonderful. It’s good to see the new plants.”

Yakama Nation restoration specialist Jeanette Burkhardt gave a tour of restored lands that were once the Northwest Lake bed. Since the dam’s removal, her work has consisted of planting native vegetation on 2.8 acres.

Soil in the old lakebed lacked organic nutrients and was high in iron and acidic sulfur. Organic materials and mycorrhizal fungus were added to make the soil more fertile.

Five hundred volunteers planted 7,400 native plants. Irrigation wasn’t used.

PacifiCorp and EcoTrust funded the work.

Today, ponderosa pine, chokecherry, deer brush and native oak are growing well. Black cottonwood trees have taken off closer to the riverbanks.

One cottonwood had clearly been felled by a beaver, another sign that habitat-restoration efforts are succeeding.

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Fish return

The celebration was called a homecoming for anadromous fish, which were prevented from returning to their ancestral waters when the Condit Dam was built in 1912.

Yakama fisheries managers Joe Zendt and Bill Sharp explained the success of dam removal for fish — 33 miles of spawning/rearing areas and 15 miles of White Salmon drainage have been formed as new habitat for anadromous fish.

Chinook salmon, fall Tule salmon, coho salmon and steelhead especially are doing well. And U.S. Geological Survey fish biologists have found juvenile steelhead and coho in all tributaries upstream of the dam site.