Wild tule fall chinook salmon are spreading out in southeast Washington’s White Salmon River, building redds (gravelly nests) and planting eggs in a part of the river that has been closed off to them for 100 years.
“There are redds throughout the area of the former lake” and at least two above what was the head of that lake until a year ago, said Rod Engle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The lake was Northwestern Lake, the former reservoir created by the now absent Condit Dam. The dam has for the most part blocked passage of native salmon and steelhead stocks since it was completed in 1913.
The Northwestern Lake reservoir surface area has for much of the past century occupied a space of about 92 acres. When a hole was blasted through the base of the dam on Oct. 26, 2011, the stored water and much of the accumulated sediment flushed down through the lower three miles of the reservoir toward the White Salmon’s confluence with the Columbia.
“They are going to use what’s there first,” Engle said of tule fall chinook explorations that once ended at the dam, but now extend more than four miles farther to the base of Husum Falls. Spring chinook and steelhead trout may be able to hurdle the falls but given relative swimming and jumping abilities some think it may be too daunting for the tules.
Redd surveys are now being conducted each week, and will continue until about Thanksgiving, in an attempt to evaluate the level of spawning above the former dam site. In hand already after a couple weeks of surveys are 26 sheets of photographs that must be studied, with the idea of pinpointing spawning sites and redd numbers.
Previously most of the tule spawning took place in the lower seven-tenths of a mile from the confluence with the Columbia. Now more are spawning above river mile one, and above the former dam site.
“We know where the tules are just because they (tule chinook redds) are so massive,” Engle said.
Examinations of spawned out tule carcasses, conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, indicate that the fish are taking advantage of the newly restored access to upstream spawning areas. And the good news is that the fish are native born, not straying hatchery fish from nearby Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery, which is operated by the USFWS. The broodstock for the hatchery production originates from White Salmon stock.
“We’ve found only wild fish” at the upstream spawning locations, Engle said.
The dam’s 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 built, according to estimates.
The chinook and steelhead stocks, which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, are the two species that would benefit most with the reopening of upstream habitat. The wild tules are part of that Lower Columbia chinook “evolutionarily significant unit” that is listed, by NOAA Fisheries Service, under the ESA.
Steelhead, too, have been spotted in flight as they navigate upstream through tumbling Husum Falls, likely searching for upstream spawning grounds in the river and its tributaries. They would build redds and begin their reproductive activity in midwinter.
A single redd, located between Husum at river mile 7.6 and BZ Falls at river mile 12.4 is believed to be made by a spring chinook salmon, Engle said.
“We expect to see upriver brights in the system too,” Engle said of a different strain of fall chinook salmon native to the Columbia system. The brights typically head upstream to spawn later than the tules.
The former reservoir area – which had taken on a bit of a moonscape aura after the drawdown - has been seeded, about 32 acres in all. The planting of native species included predominately slender wheatgrass and different types of fescue, as well as some wild rye and blue grass, and wildflowers such as lupine, penstemon and yarrow.
Because of what has been a rain-free late summer and early fall, the planned planting of some 14,000 young trees in the project area may have to wait until late winter, according to PacifiCorp’s Tom Gauntt.
The large-scale project has been stalled because of the need to time plantings when soil moisture is available, but somewhat in advance of the annual deep freeze.
“If the rains don’t come pretty soon there won’t be enough time for the trees to get thriving before the freezes, so it would be better to wait until like late February, depending on the weather, and plant then,” Gauntt said.
“We’re trying to stabilize the soil and put it back to the way it should have been” had the dam and reservoir not been created.
Dam removal was determined to be less costly to PacifiCorp customers than providing the fish passage that would have been required for dam operations to be granted under a new federal hydroelectric power license. PacifiCorp said at the time of the dam breaching that the cost of decommissioning and removing Condit was estimated at about $33 million, including funds already spent during the planning process over the 12 years since a settlement was reached with other parties to remove the dam.
The Condit Hydroelectric Project owned by PacifiCorp was located in south-central Washington 3.3 miles upstream from the White Salmon River’s confluence with the Columbia River. Constructed by Northwestern Electric Company between 1911 and 1913, the facility included a 125-foot high, 471-foot wide concrete gravity dam, a powerhouse and a 5,100-foot-long wood-stave flowline (wooden barrel-like pipeline) that led to a surge tank. The flowline split into two 9-foot diameter penstocks inside the surge tank that directed water to the turbines in the powerhouse downstream.
A 1.8-mile-long reservoir (Northwestern Lake) was created by the dam. PacifiCorp acquired the project in 1947. The former reservoir area includes steep rocky slopes that will not be planted. Northwesern Lake is now a steep canyon with a river running through it.
The White Salmon River originates on the southwestern slope of Mount Adams and eventually drains into the Columbia reservoir backed up by Bonneville Dam. Major tributaries upstream of the former Condit reservoir are Rattlesnake and Trout Lake creeks. Other tributaries that entered Northwestern Lake include Buck, Mill, and Little Buck creeks. No significant tributaries enter the White Salmon River downstream of Condit dam.
The lower river section below the former dam site remains closed at this time due to the ongoing demolition of concrete structures and slope restoration along the flowline alignment above the east bank of the river. That work is taking place on steep slopes immediately adjacent to the river channel and poses significant risk of debris and rock falling into the river.
Additionally, a number of logs from the log jam in the “narrows” between the dam site and the confluence have been removed, but a considerable amount of wood remains jammed in this location posing significant risks. PacifiCorp is currently evaluating the feasibility of removing additional woody material from the jam. Due to the current fall chinook spawning run, any additional wood removal is suspended until later this month.
“They’re thinking about a week or so from now” workers will be able to move in equipment needed to remove the log jam, Gauntt said Wednesday. “Once the fish pass they will commence.”
Pacificorp will keep its web site, http://www.pacificorp.com/, updated on the status of the flowline restoration effort and the log jam restoration, and when the lower reach of the river will be open for public use.