HUSUM, Wash. – There are times when Rod Engle barely recognizes the White Salmon River.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist has seen salmon and steelhead return, has watched a reservoir transformed into a stream, and observed the growth of a sand spit at the confluence of the Columbia River.
The White Salmon is changing, adjusting to life after the removal of Condit Dam, which blocked the river for almost a century. The United States’ tallest dam removal project at the time, the 125-foot hydroelectric structure was breached Oct. 26, 2011, and totally removed from the river Sept. 14, 2012.
“In a lot of ways, it looks like a different river,” said Engle, who started working on the White Salmon in 2005. “There are parts where it’s the same old river and parts that are totally new. The river is dynamic and changing. Every year is a clean slate.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about such a massive project is that today it’s barely noticeable. The concrete damsite and 92-acre Northwestern Reservoir essentially have vanished, the barren patches of muddy riverbank disappearing below a revegetation effort that includes 13,000 saplings and massive reseeding effort.
“There’s very little that tells you a dam was ever there,” said Tom Gauntt, a spokesman for PacifiCorp, the company that owned Condit Dam and made the decision to remove it. “The goal is to restore it as much as possible to a pre-1912 state.”
The biggest addition to the river, and the main reason the dam was removed, is salmon and steelhead.
The cost to PacifiCorp to upgrade the dam for effective fish passage — federally mandated for endangered species of salmon and steelhead — was estimated to cost about $100 million. The cost to remove the dam ended up being $35 million.
The decision to remove the dam, just three miles upstream from the Columbia, was a simple calculation. And results have been quick in coming.
“The dam was a complete barrier for salmon and steelhead, and once the dam was taken out it was like a gate being opened,” Engle said. “There’s a number of fish that came up — fall Chinook, spring Chinook, steelhead and even bulltrout. We’ve seen them jumping at some of the major waterfalls nine miles upstream from the old dam site. It’s been a little surreal.”
Even so, many people were unhappy about the dam’s removal. It turned Northwestern Lake, a popular place for flat-water kayaking and recreation, into a steep and less-accessible river. And people with cabins on the shoreline saw their lakefront property disappear.
“That lake was a big part of people’s lives, and there are times when I go down to where the lake used to be and think, ‘we did lose something here,’ ” said Pat Arnold, president of the all-volunteer Friends of the White Salmon. “But people will adapt.”
Along with salmon and steelhead, the removal also opened up passageway for whitewater rafters, kayakers and outfitters, which is big business on the White Salmon.
The new stretch of river takes boaters through narrow, winding canyon walls, past the old damsite and through rapids toward the river’s confluence with the Columbia River.
The river will continue to change during the coming decades, and the damsite will continue to disappear below trees and grassland. But for the moment, watching the White Salmon morph itself from a barricaded stream into dynamic body of water has been an exciting process.
“Next to my kids being born, the dam coming out has been the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Han Hoomans, a guide with Blue Sky Outfitters who’s been working the river since 2006. “Just watching a lake full of sediment get transformed into a river that’s changing every day is new and exciting. People have been coming from all over the county just to see what it looks like here, what it looks like when a dam comes out.”
Condit Dam Removal
Location: The White Salmon River is a 44-mile tributary of the Columbia River located just across from Hood River.
Work began: June 2011
Dam breached: Oct. 26, 2011
Dam removed from river: Sept. 14, 2012
Revegitation: PacifiCorp is monitoring the establishment of newly planted vegetation, slope stability within the former reservoir area, water quality and the newly formed delta at the mouth of the White Salmon River.