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Nov

11

2011

Down with the Dams

 

Three hundred outdoorsy people are gathered in a tent at Wet Planet, a whitewater outfitter in south-central Washington. Their eyes are turned a live video feed from the Condit Dam, several miles downstream on the White Salmon River. An alarm sounds. An engineer shouts “Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!” A volley of explosions follows, then a puff of white smoke. A roiling black cloud of silt and water bursts through a breach in the dam.

 

The Condit Dam began operations in 1913. But it’s not coming down because it was failing. Federal relicensing in the 1990s required construction of modern fish passage structures on the dam. But building them was more expensive than removing the entire dam. In 1999, the dam owners, PacifiCorp, reached a settlement with native tribes, recreation and conservation groups, and regulatory agencies to restore the river to its natural state. It took until October 26 to make it a reality.

 

In less than two hours, the lake above the dam emptied and left a canyon in its wake. In the coming spring and summer, PacifiCorp will remove the 35,000 cubic yards of concrete still standing. The White Salmon River is expected to be open to navigation next fall.

 

The detonation of the Condit Dam was a victory for environmentalists and recreationalists. But it’s not an anomaly. Two dams on the Elwha River, near Olympic National Park, are currently being removed in the largest project of its kind in history (watch on webcams here). Over 600 U.S. dams have been removed in the last 50 years, and another high-profile project is scheduled for Maine’s Penobscot River next year.

 

This is good news for salmon. “What’s begun to happen is reversing some of the habitat damage that’s taken place over the past 50 to 75 years as a result from dam building,” says Greg Block of the Wild Salmon Center. Where salmon once had access to just five miles of the Elwha River, they will now be able to spawn over 70 miles. On the White Salmon, fish were restricted to 3.3 miles of habitat; with the Condit gone, 33 miles of habitat will be open to steelhead salmon and 14 miles to chinook.

 

It’s also a welcome change for local communities, including native tribes. The Yakama Nation still gathers on March 10, marking the day in 1957 when a historical fishing site at Celilo Falls was flooded catastrophically by the closure of spillway gates of the Columbia River’s Dalles Dam.

 

Of course, freeing the White Salmon comes at the price of the hydroelectric power it produced: 13.7 megawatts of clean energy powering 7,000 homes. But the public now gets the right to weigh in how natural resources are used. “Habitat was an afterthought,” says Block, “because the resource was seen as virtually inexhaustible. That’s not true anymore.” The trick is to balance conservation values with energy demands. Tom Gauntt, a spokesman for PacifiCorp, said finding a supplemental source of power was part of the process in preparing for the demolition of the Condit. “That’s what a utility does,” says Gauntt. “We look down the road 20 or 30 years and say: How do we make sure the toasters are working in 2030?” A dam on Washington’s Lewis River is part of the answer. Located on the southern flank of Mount St. Helens, it produces 510 megawatts and serves 300,000 PacifiCorp customers.

 

Aleson Rietow, a raft guide in her fourth season running trips above the dam, has heard negative reactions to the dam removal, but likes the precedent of a community-driven solution. And then there’s the whitewater: “I hear it’s a really nice tight, narrow canyon,” says Rietow. “On a raft you might be able to go all the way to the Columbia River.”  —Olivia Dwyer

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