Washington's third dam removal marks a river renaissance

After a long negotiation process, the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River is coming down. Rather than viewing the process as a demolition, members of the Yakama tribe envision a rebirth of native foods and culture on the bottom of what is now Northwestern Lake.

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The Condit Dam, currently holding back the White Salmon River, is slated for removal.

After a long negotiation process, the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River is coming down. Rather than viewing the process as a demolition, members of the Yakama tribe envision a rebirth of native foods and culture on the bottom of what is now Northwestern Lake.

The waters of Northwestern Lake, an outcome of the Condit Dam, will soon flow freely as a river, connecting earth and water — held back for nearly a century — to its natural origins in the White Salmon River. The Condit Dam is slated for removal later this month, following the landmark removal of two larger dams along the Elwha River.

American Rivers, a conservation organization, calls 2011 the “Year of the River,” marking the milestone of 1000 dams removed nationwide since 1912. The expected removal of the Condit, and the continuing removal of the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams along the Elwha River earlier this month, also marks a significant river renaissance for Washington state.

“I think it’s a bit of luck that both these dam removal projects fell on this month. I know people who have been working on this for 20 yrs. You have to be in this for the long haul,” said Amy Kober, Senior Communications Director for American Rivers, which pushed for the Condit Dam’s removal and participated in subsequent settlement negotiations.

In 1991, PacifiCorp applied for relicensing of the Condit Dam, a process required for most hydroelectric projects in the nation. In a responding Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) informed PacifiCorp of new terms laid out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which required PacifiCorp to install new fish passage facilities for the Condit. The process would cost a hefty sum and reduce overall energy production. Removing Condit dam will cost PacifiCorp about one-third of what it would take to fulfill the terms in the EIS.

PacifiCorp, serving 1.7 million customers, is now reviewing options to replace the 13.7 megawatts of power lost from the dam removal, a relatively small amount that powers about 7,000 homes. In the last ten years, research and planning has also been under way to mitigate the factors associated with tearing down a dam and restoring a free flowing river.

“You start thinking about how many elements come to play, the fish, technical aspects, and how the river will work. It’s been a longer period of time than anyone would’ve thought,” said Tom Gauntt, a spokesman for PacifiCorp.

“[The dam] completely blocks salmon and steelhead lamprey from moving downstream and it also starves the downstream portion of the river from sediment and debris, from all these things that create a complex ecosystem,” said Bill Sharp, fisheries biologist at the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program.

Following the breach of the dam, 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment held in Northwestern Lake is expected to wash downstream. Like the removal projects on the Elwha River, Condit Dam’s removal includes efforts to mitigate long-standing sediment held behind the dam, ensure the security of fisheries, and reconnect local Native American tribes to sacred resources that they have been deprived of for generations. But despite their similarities, the dam removal projects on the Elwha — already underway and called the largest river restoration project in history — doesn’t necessarily serve as a precedent for groups working on Condit Dam.

“[These dams are] very particular ecosystems in how they work, as far as what kind of sediments are there and how long it’s been there, just how the dam is operated over the years, the geology of what is going on below the dam. Everything needs to be customized to fit that. It’s not like this happens every day, so you can’t say, ‘Take the blueprint off the shelf and follow it,’” said Gauntt.

In 1999, PacifiCorp wrapped up two years of settlement negotiations with parties, including American Rivers, the Yakama Indian Nation, and other environmental groups. The resulting agreement paved the way towards decommissioning the dam rather than relicensing, and included terms that mandated PacifiCorp contribute to the efforts of over twenty environmental organizations, the Yakama Nation, and other groups to mitigate the effects of the removal project on fish and the surrounding environment.

This month, workers are blasting a tunnel through the base of the reservoir. But they won't begin dismantling the dam piece by piece until next spring, when construction poses less risk for fish and low water flow would minimize any debris in the river bed. Environmental organizations are looking to the revitalization of other rivers as hopeful signs.

“[The Elwha and White Salmon] are different rivers and the dams are being removed in different ways," said Kober. "I think we’ll be taking lessons from both dam removals; how quickly sediments move downriver, how quickly the insects and fish come back, how quickly the river restores itself, are all questions people are curious to find out. Hopefully we can apply the knowledge we have from these rivers when other dams are being removed.”

“What we see with dams that come down around the country is the newly exposed land along the river really restores itself pretty quickly. The grass and trees come back quickly,” Kober added.

Emily Washine, Restoration and Remediation Coordinator for the Yakama Nation, and her family are among the many tribal families that inherited the land to the west of Northwestern Lake, known as where the two canyons meet.

“The area was a place where my family would go forage for traditional foods and medicines," Washine said. "It had more meadows and wetlands than it does now. This changed due to the dam and agricultural use in the area.”

The Yakama tribe eagerly awaits the revegetation of plant life in the area, which will likely mark the return of indigenous plants like the wapato, a wetland root, and other medicinal plants that have been scarce in the last 70 years.

“Culturally, we have teachings that talk about [serving] the water at the table first, so when we have our ceremonies, what goes on the table first is the water,” explains Washine. “With our restoration, we’re taking on the same attitude that we have to put the water first, and if we fix the water first, we’ll see all the other resources that follow.”

Traditionally, salmon follows water on the table, then other foods. Salmon and the Pacific Lamprey, sacred resources for the Yakama are part of ceremonies that took place in the area, where the fish was once plentiful, but are now largely reserved for elders. Sharp adds that placing the value of salmon second to water and above other resources is not only a cultural mindset, but a scientific one as well. Restoring the water would allow for the return of these fish as a key species, which would in turn bring essential marine-derived nutrients to the rivers and nearby plants, and provide sustenance for invertebrates and bears.

With the importance of these fish in mind, the Yakama Nation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Geological Survey worked with PacifiCorp to develop a method for removal that is safe for salmon in the area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led a multi-agency effort to collect and transport 679 tule Chinook, a threatened species, above dam to spawn.

“There’s always so much bad news about the environment. But here on these rivers, we are making an incredible difference. We are seeing these rivers literally come back to life, and that is an incredible success story, not just an environmental success story. It’s about reconnecting these communities to the rivers and connecting the Native American tribes to their culture. There’s a lot more going on here than just tearing down some old dams,” said Kober.

In a recent spawning ground survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife noted about 180 tule fall Chinook redds, or fish nests, above the dam near Husum Falls— an area where no tules, salmon, or pacific lamprey have found in nearly a hundred years. In a few weeks, the fish will wrap up with spawning and in three to five years, the progeny of those fish will return from the ocean to a restored habitat that will emerge after Condit’s removal.

This month, PacifiCorp has begun tunneling through the base of the dam, reserving the remaining 10 to 15 feet for October 26, when the final blast will create a tunnel that could drain the near century-old lake in as little as six hours.


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