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Removal of White River dam set for next year after Department of Ecology ruling

By Staff

Spawning salmon can’t cheer – as far as we know – but legions of their human guardians are cheering a recent easement ruling by Washington’s Department of Ecology. Officials said they had no serious concerns about sediment behind Condit Dam. The 125-foot-high dam is on the White Salmon River, about three miles from where it converges with the Columbia River about 65 miles east of Vancouver. The ruling clears the way for removal of the obsolete dam, a project that could occur in October 2010, according to a June 7 story by Columbian reporter Erik Robinson. Mercury-laden sediment, probably from volcanic rock, has been building up behind the dam since it was built in 1913. Water quality was a concern after sediment samples taken from the reservoir behind the dam – Northwestern Lake – showed high levels of mercury. Mercury often is found in volcanic rock in the Cascades, and the White Salmon receives runoff from Mount Adams.
Mercury is not “a show stopper for the (dam) removal and, in fact, will improve conditions for the fish,” Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder said.

Three other reasons support the dam removal: Tissue samples from fish in the reservoir show minimal accumulation of mercury; inorganic mercury should dissipate quickly en route to the Columbia; and mud (estimated at about 2.2 million cubic yards), not mercury, will be the biggest threat to fish when the dam is breached. Fish immediately below the dam will be killed by high levels of sediment. But the major, lasting benefit is opening 32 miles of the river and its tributaries to salmon, steelhead and bull trout habitat. “We’re certainly pleased,” said Todd Olson, project manager for PacifiCorp in Portland.

According to a company report, PacifiCorp, a private utility that operates as Pacific Power in Washington and Oregon, filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to renew Condit’s operating license. The license would expire in 1993. Based on recommendations contained in a FERC environmental impact statement – for conditions such as fish passage facilities – the company determined that relicensing would cost $30 million to $50 million. In 1997, it asked FERC to halt licensing for Condit, and start settlement discussions.

A settlement agreement calling for dam removal was signed Sept. 22, 1999. It allowed continued operation for seven years, until October 2006, and capped removal cost at $17.1 million, later increased to $28 million. A new agreement extended removal to October 2008.

A clause pushed the removal deadline ahead to 2009 to allow completion of the permit process.

Now, removal is set for October 2010, and this date – fortunately – looks like a keeper.

A further bonus for the river is riparian. Where do you dump all that concrete? The ecology report supported PacifiCorp’s plan to deposit 34,000 cubic yards of concrete on the eastern bank of the White Salmon below the dam site. It will reconstruct the natural alignment of the bank, cut away 96 years ago by the builders to permit a wooden flume to carry water to a downstream powerhouse.

And so a fish tale nears a happy ending with expected destruction of the highest dam ever breached in America. When the 15-foot-diameter hole is cut in the 85-foot-wide concrete base of the dam, a dash of dynamite will open the hole to a raging torrent – and the beginning of significant habitat improvement.

Vancouver, WA
June 15, 2009

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