Condit Dam on the White Salmon River is breached Wednesday in the third-largest dam removal in the country.
First Elwha and Glines Canyon, and now Condit: The three largest dam removals ever in the country will be under way in Washington today, when contractors detonate 800 pounds of dynamite and blast the White Salmon River free.
“You hate to see it go; it’s good, carbon-free energy,” said Tom Hickey, senior engineer for hydro resources for PacifiCorp. But Condit Dam is only one of 47 projects in the company’s hydro fleet, Hickey said, and it has other sources of power from wind to coal.
Condit’s time simply had come.
“To me, it’s like a grandfather,” said Larry Moran, project superintendent for JR Merit, lead contractor on the job. “It’s not an evil, it served a purpose well, and now it’s time to lay it to rest.”
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While a dam-busting frenzy may seem to be under way in the Northwest — and it is — the timing is a coincidence. All three dam removals — Glines Canyon and Elwha on the Elwha River, and Condit on the White Salmon — have been in the works for decades. Even dam busters agree it will be awhile before another big dam falls in the Northwest, such as the four structures on the Lower Snake River, long criticized by some as salmon killers and money wasters.
For one thing, even the smallest of dams on the Lower Snake puts out nearly seven times the average annual energy of all three dams being taken out combined. And the Snohomish Public Utility District is operating one new hydro project and considering several others — including a dam at Sunset Falls on the Skykomish River — that together would generate nearly as much power as the dam-removal projects together unplug.
Nonetheless, the Elwha and Condit projects demonstrate that dam removal in some situations can be a viable and sensible option, backers of the projects said. It’s a realization that detonates not only concrete, but ways of thinking, too.
Richard Rutz, a Seattle environmental activist who in the 1980s first came up with the legal theory that ultimately led to the removal of Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, remembers how the idea was first received.
“Not only did agencies and political people and newspapers and various others say I was deluded and crazy, there were some environmental organizations that thought this was way too radical, they were trying to be responsible, and here I was talking about tearing out a dam,” Rutz said. “What Elwha showed was it was not a crazy idea, that things we build will eventually wear out and the idea that they can’t come out is patently ridiculous.
“It is actually happening,” he said of dam removal, “and in quite a straightforward manner.”
About 1,000 U.S. dams have been removed since 1912, according to the advocacy nonprofit American Rivers. But most have been small dams, many less than 20 feet high. Glines Canyon towers (or used to, until demolition began last month) at 210 feet, Elwha was 108 and Condit is 125 feet tall.)
Katherine Ransel, of Seattle, formerly of American Rivers, helped lead the drive to take out Condit, a negotiation that also took decades. Sitting around the table with engineers was the fun part, she recalled. “They said, ‘Why don’t we just blow it up,’ ” she said after Condit’s owner, PacifiCorp, finally decided to literally pull the plug on the dam.
Construction began in 1911 on Condit Dam about 3 miles from the confluence of the Columbia in a tight canyon of the river.
Before construction, historical accounts from Yakama tribal members indicated some 8,000 adult salmon and steelhead returned to the river. Condit blocked miles of habitat when, between 1914 and 1919, two fish ladders constructed to pass fish over the dam washed out in floods.
PacifiCorp filed for a new license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the dam in 1991, and the fight was on over the dam’s future, with tribal, environmental and recreational interests pressing for removal of Condit.
The environmental-impact statement issued by FERC ultimately indicated PacifiCorp would pay more than three times as much to bring the dam up to current standards for relicensing as the $33 million it is costing the company to just take it out.
The company will spread the cost over its 1.7 million customers in six states, including about 130,000 in Washington. PacifiCorp’s biggest customer base is in Utah.
The Yakama Nation was a key player in the settlement agreement that ultimately led to removal of the dam. The tribe historically fished on the White Salmon, but today, with salmon either extinct or listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in the river, tribal members fish on the Klickitat, just east of the White Salmon, and with no dams.
On a recent visit, the Klickitat kicked and foamed down a tight, basalt canyon, as Leonard Dave Jr. reached into the cataract with a more than 25-foot-long dip net, standing on a homemade wooden platform on the rocks, secured by only a rope around his waist. A telltale yank on a piece of buckskin on the net signaled him to pull it shut around the fish: a writhing silver coho.
The Yakama have fished this way since the glaciers receded, and tribal members look forward to fishing the White Salmon again, elder Tony Washines said as he watched his cousin fish. His nephew and sons also were up all night fishing the coho run, filling burlap sacks with fish they would sell to commercial buyers waiting on the banks of the Columbia.
Taking out Condit Dam is expected to create 14 miles of salmon habitat and 33 new miles of habitat for steelhead. Salmon already have wasted no time digging nests in the upper reaches of the river, where biologists hand-carried 679 adult tule fall chinook last month, to start a new generation.
Finning in the current, exhausted and barely holding position by her nest, one female tule fall chinook seen in the river this month was guarding her redd until her last breath. She eventually would let loose her hold in the current, and come to rest on a gravel bar, and in dying become food for this ecosystem.
Her tail was beaten white, with the pigment and flesh worn to the bones in the effort of digging her nest in the gravel.
Tules are big chinook, and each fish is like a 25-pound sack of fertilizer — or larger — feeding the birds, bugs, bears and other animals in the watershed. With the return of the big kings, locals already see a river coming back to life.
“I don’t know how they knew, but we are already seeing osprey and eagles where we have never seen them before,” said Mary Harmon, still in her dry suit from an afternoon whitewater kayaking on the river.
People living in cabins along the river said they were amazed to hear the racket the fish made at night, the males thrashing and fighting for mates, and females digging their nests.
Harmon, who lives in the town of White Salmon, Klickitat County, said she reveled in taking her children to watch the fish. It makes up, she said, for losing the lake she and her family used to enjoy on hot, summer days above the dam.
“In the big picture,” she said, “we are getting a free-flowing river back.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736