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News / Clark County News

‘Welcome to our cathedral’: Cowlitz tribe, Columbia Land Trust hail dam’s pending removal

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 14, 2024, 6:08am
6 Photos
Cowlitz Indian Tribe Chair Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, right, and council member Suzanne Donaldson perform a &ldquo;calling in the ancestors&rdquo; song Friday at Kwoneesum Dam northeast of Washougal. The decades-old dam is being removed to restore Wildboy Creek.
Cowlitz Indian Tribe Chair Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, right, and council member Suzanne Donaldson perform a “calling in the ancestors” song Friday at Kwoneesum Dam northeast of Washougal. The decades-old dam is being removed to restore Wildboy Creek. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

SKAMANIA — Getting to Kwoneesum Dam involves a bumpy, jarring 45-minute drive up rural, unpaved roads not easily found on a map. But it’s worth the rough drive.

At the top lies the dam and Kwoneesum reservoir. Surrounded by a mix of hardwood and evergreen trees, the view is picture-postcard perfection.

But the beauty of the landscape hides an ugly truth. In the nearly 60 years since the dam was built, it’s done far more harm than good. If all goes according to plan, Kwoneesum Dam will finally be gone by the end of this summer.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe and Columbia Land Trust have been working for close to 10 years on removing the old dam and reservoir. On Friday, they held a ceremony at the dam celebrating its removal. Among those attending were tribal leaders, Columbia Land Trust representatives, local officials and state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver.

Tanna Engdahl, spiritual leader for the tribe, welcomed all with a blessing.

“Welcome to our cathedral. It has changed quite a bit. Sort of like Notre Dame, it’s under repair,” Engdahl said. “I call this a vanity lake, created for a very small segment of the population. Its use is long past its privilege date. Bringing it down will serve a greater community and a greater need in nature.”

Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, the tribe’s chairwoman, said she knows many people think of the dam as a beautiful spot but that’s not how the tribe sees it.

“It destroyed things, and we’re here to put it back. … This is our ancestral lands, and we’re bringing it back to the way it should be,” Kinswa-Gaiser said.

She said this project has a deep significance for the Cowlitz Tribe, not just because of the benefits to the environment but for the preservation of the tribe’s cultural heritage.

“By restoring fish passage and nurturing the ecosystem within the Washougal River watershed, we’re honoring our ancestors, while improving the health of a river system that our tribe, our community and our region depends on,” Kinswa-Gaiser said.

Complicated task

Removing the dam will be complicated and time consuming. According to Pete Barber, restoration ecologist for the tribe, all of the water in the reservoir will have to be pumped out and distributed to other streams or creeks. Wildlife, such as salmon and newts, will have to be captured and held for relocation or reintroduction. Then silt and sediment built up at the bottom of the dam will have to be removed before all of the concrete used for the dam, spillway and water control can be removed.

“It’s going to be the fourth-largest dam removal in Washington state’s history,” Barber said, adding it’s as much a de-watering project as it is a dam removal project.

He said the site has a long and complex history. In 1902, the Yacolt Burn incinerated all of the old-growth forests in the area. The burn brought in loggers looking to salvage the old-growth trees. The loggers used splash dams — that is, temporary wooden dams that raise water levels to then force logs downstream.

18 Photos
*SECONDARY* Cowlitz Indian Tribe council member Suzanne Donaldson looks out at the lake created by Kwoneesum Dam on Friday, May 10, 2024, near Washougal. The 1960s-era dam is slated to be removed, restoring the Wildboy Creek to its natural state and providing miles of fish spawning habitat.
Kwoneesum Dam Photo Gallery

“This creek, Wildboy Creek, had all of the trees essentially burned off, logged, splash dammed and then soon after … the Camp Fire Girls came out here,” Barber said.

The Camp Fire Girls organization built the dam in 1965 to create a recreational lake for a summer camp. The summer camp operated until the late 1980s when the land was sold to a timber company.

“The dam … essentially blocked all of the transport of wood, sediment, the chemicals moving downstream that benefit bugs. Essentially, they cut off the lifeblood of this lower watershed,” Barber said.

The land was again put up for sale in 2019. Cowlitz Indian Tribe staff saw a crucial opportunity and alerted Columbia Land Trust, who raised funds and purchased the 1,300-acre site in 2020 using grants from the Open Rivers Fund, as well as funding from Washington Department of Ecology’s water quality program, Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board, and other private and nonprofit donations.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe performs "Calling in the Ancestors" during a blessing ceremony at Kwoneesum Dam on Friday in Skamania County.

Restoring habitat

Removing the dam will restore 6.5 miles of stream habitat vital for coho salmon and winter and summer steelhead spawning and rearing. More importantly, removing the dam means removing the reservoir. Barber said many species native to these waters require cold water, but the water flows into the reservoir and then sits under the sun and heats up before being released downstream.

“When the water is coming out of the three tributaries here, it’s really cold. It’s mostly all snowmelt. Then, it sits in this reservoir and heats up. We’re in the headwater tributaries of the Washougal (River). This is where the water should be the coldest, and it’s going to heat up another 5 or 6 degrees just in this location,” Barber said.

Barber estimated the total cost for the project at approximately $5 million. Along with $2.57 million awarded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2022, additional funding came from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, Open Rivers Fund and others.

Removing the dam and restoring Wildboy Creek, which flows into the Washougal River, will ultimately benefit the Columbia River, said Meg Rutledge, executive director for Columbia Land Trust.

On the Web

For more information about the project to remove the Kwoneesum Dam, visit https://openriversfund.org/projects/wildboy-creek-lower-columbia-sandy.

“The Columbia River is not just isolated to the waterways and the banks. It’s all the tributaries that feed into it, all the forestry systems, the wetlands,” Rutledge said. “We work along all of those areas with the idea that restoring the health upstream trickles down and restores the health downstream.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.