After nearly a century of serving PacifiCorp customers, Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in south central Washington will start to be removed this fall, fulfilling a multi-party settlement agreement signed in 1999, and providing access to about 32 miles of relatively pristine habitat for salmon, steelhead and other fish.
Decommissioning the hydroelectric project is now moving forward after receipt of an “essential sediment management permit” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the final major regulatory step. On Dec. 16, 2010, PacifiCorp received a Surrender Order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission providing for dam decommissioning.
The commission modified the Surrender Order on April 21, which, with the Corps permit, provides the regulatory certainty PacifiCorp needed to proceed to remove the 125-foot high dam. On June 8, 2011, the commission completed review and approval of requisite project removal design and resource management plans.
“We have notified our contractors to move forward,” said Todd Olson, program manager for PacifiCorp. “The project has been in the planning stages for more than a decade. These recent regulatory approvals enable us to now move forward with the commitment we made to the settlement parties to remove the dam as soon as feasible.”
Dam removal was determined to be less costly to PacifiCorp customers than the fish passage that would be required for operation as part of the federal dam relicensing process. The cost of decommissioning Condit is currently estimated at about $32 million, including funds already spent during the planning process.
“While we move forward on this complex task with determination, it will be sad to see Condit go,” Olson said. “It has been supplying low-cost, renewable and emission-free power for our customers since 1913, long before those phrases were even in use.”
“The decommissioning of Condit Dam represents a momentous and long-awaited day,” said Virgil Lewis, of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, one of the parties to the 1999 settlement. “This is an essential step in restoring the ecosystem’s resources and rebuilding the natural balance that supported the Yakama people and a significant tribal fishery for millennia. We are excited to welcome home the salmon, steelhead and lamprey that have been absent from the White Salmon River over the last century.”
American Rivers, a leading national conservation organization advocating for clean water and healthy rivers, pointed to the cooperation behind the decommissioning.
"After years of hard work, we will soon celebrate one of the nation's biggest and most exciting river restoration projects,” said Brett Swift, Northwest regional director of American Rivers. “Condit Dam served a useful purpose, but now the time has come to remove it and restore a healthy, free-flowing White Salmon River. We applaud PacifiCorp for its leadership. It isn't every day that we get to witness a river coming back to life."
Plans call for a summer full of preparation before a carefully planned breach in October releases Northwestern Lake through a 13-foot hole blasted out near the base of the dam. Steps to be completed before the breach include the initial excavation of the 90-foot-long drain tunnel, dredging the upstream side of the dam at the drain tunnel, work to strengthen a bridge that crosses Northwestern Lake, and also relocating a water pipeline that crosses the reservoir.
“Safety for everyone involved is a key priority,” said Tom Hickey, PacifiCorp’s project manager. “People working on the project will be taking special care, and PacifiCorp will also implement a public safety plan. It will be important for people in the area to abide by closure signs and stay out of the project area.”
After the initial breach and draining of the reservoir in October, demolition of the remaining portion of the dam is scheduled to begin in spring 2012 and be completed by Aug. 31, 2012. Restoration work throughout the former reservoir area is planned to be completed by the end of 2012.
After the dam is breached, federal, state and tribal biologist will at least initially just allow the chinook, steelhead and lamprey to recolonize the area above the dam on their own.
“It basically is a wait and see process for most of the stocks,” said Yakama Nation biologist Bill Sharp. Potential salmon donor stocks would most likely come from the Klickitat River, which flows into the Columbia upstream of the White Salmon, and Oregon’s Hood River, which comes in across the river from the White Salmon.
The exception will be fall chinook tules and brights found in the lower three miles of river below the dam.
The breaching of Condit Dam and draining of Northwestern Lake is expected to temporarily eliminate anadromous spawning in the lower river by inundating the spawning area with reservoir sediments. So biologists spent 2008 and 2009 learning how best to capture spawners in August and September so they can be transported for release above Northwestern Lake before the big blow.
“We’re kind of waiting in the wings,” said the USFWS’ Rod Engle, who headed the past two years’ tests of various nets and of the use of a weir to steer the fish into the White Salmon Ponds, a facility that was until the 1970s used to collect fall chinook broodstock for the Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery. Engle said wild fall chinook from the White Salmon were used to start the hatchery program, which was launched in 1901.
In 2008 the netting trial run resulted in the capture of 99 hatchery origin LCR fall Chinook salmon from the lower White Salmon River. They were transported and released upstream of Condit Dam. A total of 333 fish were collected from Spring Creek NFH, transported and then released upstream of Condit Dam. The total number of fish released above Condit Dam that year was 423.
“They did in fact build redds,” Engle said. This year biologists are hoping they capture at least 500. They will likely use both seining and the weir and ponds.
The trapping project was collaboratively planned by the White Salmon Technical Working Group, which is made up of representatives of the USFWS, Yakama Indian Nation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Forest Service, PacifiCorp and U.S. Geological Survey.
The dam removal is expected to have long-term benefits for the four species to be most impacted -- Mid-Columbia steelhead, Lower Columbia chinook and coho and Columbia River chum salmon. The removal would allow access to about 14 miles of chinook and 33 miles of steelhead habitat that has been blocked since the dam was build. The chinook and steelhead stocks, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act, are the two species that would benefit most with the reopening of upstream habitat. Pacific lamprey and bull trout could also take advantage of the newly opened habitat.
Throughout the removal, PacifiCorp will continue to work with county officials and local residents on access restrictions and other safety measures as the project progresses. Timely public notices will be posted concerning any closures.
For general information on the Condit project, visit: http://www.pacificorp.com/es/hydro/hl/condit.html
The construction contractor for the decommissioning project is JR Merit Industrial Contractors, Inc. of Vancouver, Wash. with engineering and construction monitoring services being provided by Kleinfelder, an international engineering consulting firm based in San Diego, Calif. with a local office in Portland, Oregon.
The parties to the settlement include the Yakama Nation, American Rivers, American Whitewater Affiliation, Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, the Columbia Gorge Coalition, Columbia River United, Federation of Fly Fishers, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the White Salmon River, The Mountaineers, Rivers Council of Washington, The Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Washington Trout, the Washington Wilderness Coalition, the CRITFC, the USFS, the U.S. Department of Interior, NMFS, the Washington Department of Ecology and WDFW.