On a crisp October day, when the water of Northwestern Lake was perfectly placid, a siren began to blare, echoing off the valley walls. A man’s voice came over a PA system announcing, “Fire in the hole!”
Just a few minutes after noon on October 26, 2011, engineers detonated a cache of dynamite large enough to punch a hole through the concrete base of the 125-foot tall Condit Dam.
Through the breach shot a torrent of silt-brown water, tumbling down the narrow canyon of the White Salmon River.
Eyewitnesses cheered, hugged and high-fived. Some stood silent in awe. Some wiped away tears.
The massive concrete dam had stood for a century. When it was breached, it was the largest dam removal effort that had ever been attempted in the United States.
Removing the Condit Dam a decade ago came with the hopes of a wide constituency: natural resource managers hoped to see the number of fish, especially endangered salmon, increase and regain miles of upriver habitat; recreational river runners hoped for the emergence of new challenging rapids; and Indigenous tribes with ancestral ties to the White Salmon welcomed an opportunity for ecological restoration and cultural reconnection.
All of these hopes were staked on one unknown premise: if the White Salmon River could run free again, it would return to its natural state. But no one could say for sure how long this would take and what it would look like.
Now, a decade since the dust of the dam’s demolition settled, some of those answers are starting to be seen.
A unique river in the Pacific Northwest
In a region renowned for rivers, the White Salmon is rather unique. It starts on the snow-capped peak of Washington’s Mount Adams. It flows from glaciers, cold and fast. It tumbles downward, dropping 50 feet per mile, cutting a narrow canyon through solid basalt. The many rapids in the narrow canyons give the White Salmon a reputation as one of the best whitewater rivers for rafters and kayakers.
It is located in a unique ecological cross-over zone, where the lush fir forests west of the Cascades transition to pines of the drier forests to the east. Native plants like wild huckleberry, camas, and wapato grow abundantly in this area. Since time immemorial, it has been the traditional hunting, fishing and gathering grounds of tribes such as Wishram, Klickitat and Yakama.
Renowned for its natural beauty, two sections of the White Salmon are designated as “Wild and Scenic” under the Wild and Scenic River Act. It is a relatively short river, running only 45 miles to its confluence with the Columbia River.
As a major tributary to the Columbia, it is an important spawning ground for endangered salmon.
The making and unmaking of the dam
When work on the Condit Dam began in 1912, the era of dam building in the Pacific Northwest was just getting underway. The population of Washington state had surpassed one million, growing the demand for electricity. The turbines of the Condit Dam would be able to produce up to 13.7 megawatts—enough energy to bring electricity to approximately 7,000 average homes for a year.
But from the beginning, Northwest dam builders realized blocking a river’s flow would also block fish — another of the region’s resources
When Condit Dam was constructed, a wooden fish ladder was built. A year after the dam opened, a flood washed away the fish ladder. They rebuilt it. A few years later, the fish ladder washed out again. A final attempt was made in 1925 with an experimental fish elevator, without success. The lack of fish passage would be, ultimately, Condit Dam’s undoing.
When Condit Dam’s operating license was up for renewal in the 1990s, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses all hydroelectric dams in the United States, required the installation of a fish passage system.
During the 1990s, concern for declining salmon populations was growing, with dams being identified as one of the causes. Twelve populations of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The dams of the early hydro era were aging, some becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and update. Between 1990 and 2015, approximately 900 dams were removed in the United States.
The company that owned the dam, PacifiCorp, estimated that it would cost three times more to update Condit Dam to the required standards than it would cost to decommission it and take it out.
In 2011, 99 years after workers came to the White Salmon to build Condit Dam, crews arrived to take it down.
Pulling the plug
At the time, Condit Dam was going to be the largest removal in the United States, and as such, there were some big unknowns.
The first: how to break apart the dam? The dam itself was essentially a massive block of solid concrete — 90 feet thick and 125-feet tall.
Secondly: What happens once you break the dam, releasing everything that it had been holding back for a century? Backed up behind the dam was its reservoir, Northwestern Lake. The inundated water of the White Salmon stretched upriver nearly 2 miles, and spread across approximately 92 acres. Sediment that the White Salmon had swept down from the mountain and canyons settled when it hit the slack water. It had accumulated to an estimated volume of 2.4 million cubic yards.
Engineers chose to blast a hole at the bottom of the dam to breach it, like pulling the plug on an enormous bathtub.
They expected it would take at least six hours for all the water to gush through the hole in the dam. Some say it took just two hours, others say it was only a half an hour. All agree, it happened faster than anyone had imagined, and it was like nothing they’d seen before.
“It was like watching a million years of geology happening in the space of minutes,” said Todd Collins, owner of Wet Planet Rafting & Kayaking. “Football field-size pieces of land and dirt that would sort of liquify and then spin and twirl and turn into mud and go downstream.”
Eyewitnesses also recall the putrid smell of a river that had been stagnant so long.
Taking root: regrowing the river banks
One of the biggest hopes of removing the Condit Dam and draining the reservoir was that the White Salmon would return to its original river channel and that trees and other plants would regrow along its banks. But no one knew how long this would take to recover. Or if it even would.
Northwestern Lake had once been a local favorite spot for boating, swimming and summer picnics. After the reservoir drained, the ring of recreational cabins were left high and dry, perched above a flat expanse of barren silt.
“We had to treat this more like a Mount St. Helens where you’re starting at ground zero.” said Jeanette Burkhardt, watershed planner with Yakama Nation Fisheries.
Being underwater for a century, the sediment was not the same as the soil along the river’s banks. Rather, it was coarse like sand, acidic, and high in iron and sulfur.
“There was no playbook on how to restore former reservoir sites,” Burkhardt said. “We were learning as we were going.”
The sterile sediment did not have what makes soil fertile: the buildup of leaves and organic material. So Burkhardt used mulch made from local trees, and even added a mycorrhizal fungus found in the nearby forest, which would potentially help the plant roots get more water, and survive the drought conditions of summer.
“Without the jumpstart, it would have taken the soil a very long time to establish,” Burkhart said.
At what was once the upper end of the reservoir, in a 2.8-acre site, some 7,000 plants, shrubs, and trees were planted with the help of more than 500 volunteers.
Flooding and drought took their toll on the new plants, but many of the hardier species managed to hang on, like deer brush, ponderosa pine and Oregon white oak, setting deep taproots to reach the water table.
With all the sediment released downriver, the mouth of the White Salmon River changed. A sandbar formed, like a delta. But the sediment also filled and blocked the boat channel to the fishing site used by tribal members at Underwood.
This area became another successful revegetation project. Approximately 15,000 cubic yards of sediment that had washed down from the former reservoir were dredged and spread over the shallow bend above the Underwood boat ramp. The sediment was bulldozed into a wide river shoulder, elevating the bank four feet above river level.
Today the river shoulder is a lush stretch of green, blanketed by sedges and willows, as if it had always been that way.
A return of salmon?
Removing the dam was expected to open approximately 33 miles of new spawning and rearing grounds for steelhead and 15 miles of new habitat for salmon in the White Salmon River basin.
Researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Yakama Nation Fisheries, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey have monitored various aspects of the fish returns.
Each fall, chinook return from the Pacific Ocean to the place of their birth. It is the very last chapter of their lifecycle, when they will spawn and die.
Every week during the fall run, Elise Olk and a team with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife take catarafts down the lower section of the river. Wearing polarized sunglasses to cut the water’s glare, they count the number of salmon swimming upstream, the number of carcasses, and small patches of upturned gravel on the riverbed that the salmon make to lay their eggs, called redds. Or as they say in shorthand, “lives, deads and redds.”
A female will lay some 8,000 eggs, but only about 1% of her offspring will survive and return as adults. Olk and her team have been tracking the fall and spring chinook runs since the removal of Condit Dam.
“When the dam was removed, the first couple years there wasn’t a lot of spawnable habitat down here, not a lot of really good gravel for them to create their nests in their redds,” Olk said. “We’ve since seen a lot more gravel down the river here lower and a lot more fish activity and spawning down in the river in general.”
Fisheries biologists like Ian Jezorek with the USGS have been monitoring the young steelhead and coho salmon. Jezorek has found juvenile steelhead and coho in all of the accessible tributaries upstream of the former dam site. “This suggests that the fish using the White Salmon are producing viable offspring, which are returning and will hopefully build populations,” Jezorek said.
The overall counts of returning salmon have fluctuated over the past several years. “Most of the lows and highs correspond with run size years for Columbia River populations overall,” said Joe Zendt, a fisheries biologist with Yakama Nation Fisheries. Larger-scale factors, like ocean conditions and climate, complicate the effort to understand how much of a role dam removal has in salmon recovery.
Since salmon and steelhead typically live for between three to six years, in the decade since the removal of Condit Dam, there have only been a few generation cycles for biologists to study.
“It may just take a few more generations,” Zendt said.
With national media attention around the dam removal in 2011, local river running businesses looked forward to a boon in river recreation once the dam was gone.
When the dam was standing, commercial outfitters could only offer half-day trips down an 8-mile stretch of the river; after the dam was removed, they could also offer full-day trips, going all the way through what had been the area of Condit Dam to the Columbia.
Knowing what the river looked like flowing freely above the dam, they wondered what it might look like without the dam. As soon as the last of Condit Dam had been removed and the river was reopened to the public, local river runners hopped in rafts and kayaks to experience the new river.
Mark Zoller, president of Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys, and Todd Collins, owner of Wet Planet White Water Rafting & Kayaking, were two of the first to see the White Salmon after the dam from the river’s own level.
Zoller, who grew up on the White Salmon River, had always known the river below the dam as “little more than a skinny creek.” Without the river diverted to spin the turbines of the powerhouse, the water surged through the narrow canyon.
Today, as rafts splash through rapids, round a bend, and slip through a narrow spot where two cliffs squeeze the river, long-time guides like Zoller and Collins point at the rocky cliffs and explain to guests that a dam used to be here.
“I almost wish they’d left a piece of concrete up on the cliff to see how high it was,” said Zoller.
“It feels to me like it just happened.” Collins. “Was it really that long ago?”
Collins, who has been guiding for more than 20 years, sometimes catches himself talking about the dam and the former Northwestern Lake with his staff at Wet Planet and realizes that most of them never saw the river when it was dammed.
“Very, very few guests are even aware of the dam removal,” said Collins. “Guests are literally looking at it only as half day versus all day.” Of the total number of river trips booked at Wet Planet Rafting & Kayaking in a typical year, only about 10-15% of the trips are full day, where guests can pass through what was once the solid concrete of Condit Dam.
In the decade since the dam, professional river guides like Collins and Zoller have watched the river purge more sediment, exposing bedrock, shifting as it settles back into its riverbed.
“How much further does it have to go?” wonders Zoller. “I know it’ll be different in 10 years, and I’m excited to see it change.”
Reclaiming roots and rights
The company that owned Condit Dam still owns land along the White Salmon, including 289 acres between the former dam site and the Columbia River.
In 2019, The Yakama Nation, which co-manages fisheries of the White Salmon, negotiated an agreement with PacifiCorp for a “right of first offer” to purchase the land if PacifiCorp decided to sell.
The agreement represented “a unique opportunity to preserve in perpetuity critical river and upland habitats that sustain our way of life,” said Virgil Lewis Sr., vice chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council.
While PacifiCorp may sell the land below the former dam at some point in the future, that time remains unknown.
The tribe retains fishing rights to the land through its 1855 treaty with the federal government, and it had been hoped that a return of salmon could bring back a traditional fishery. The realization of this hope is still waiting for the salmon populations to reestablish a firmer hold in the river. So they monitor, and wait.
The pace of the river
Hope ran high on that October day when Condit Dam was breached, and its reservoir drained in front of the crowds gathered to witness the historic event. Perhaps it was the unexpected speed of the reservoir draining in less time than it would take to watch a movie. Or perhaps it was the first sight of steelhead jumping at Husum Falls upriver of the former dam site the first summer after the blast. Or perhaps it was the years of anticipation as stakeholders worked toward that turning point moment. It seemed that change would come quickly, and that the Salmon River would soon be back to its original self. A decade later, the changes have been subtle and the rate of transformation has slowed.
Restoration has been set in motion, and now nature takes its course, like the water of the White Salmon, moving freely at its own pace.