It started with a blast last fall – 700 pounds of dynamite ripping through the base of the White Salmon River’s Condit Dam in western Washington State. Since then, crews have been dismantling the 125-foot tall concrete structure in a major effort to restore the river and its historic salmon and steelhead runs.
Last Saturday, I rafted the White Salmon to see first hand the progress on this river restoration project. With Condit Dam completely gone, the river is now free-flowing from its source high up in the snow-melt of southwest Washington’s Mount Adams all the way to the Columbia River. We spent about three hours on the water, floating from the Wet Planet put in to Northwestern Park.
The last time I rafted this river several years ago, the trip ended in the reservoir’s slackwater. Completed in 1913, Condit was a hydropower dam, producing up to 13.7 megawatts of power – enough for about 6,200 homes. The dam was built with a fish ladder that was destroyed by floods early on, cutting off salmon migration.
In 1996 the federal government ordered the dam owner PacifiCorp to install a fish ladder, as a condition of securing a new operating license. PacifiCorp deemed the upgrades too costly, and instead chose to decommission the project. The Yakama Nation, and groups like American Rivers, American Whitewater, and Friends of the White Salmon played a major role advocating for fish passage and river restoration over the years.
Now, the slackwater is gone and the current in this wild river ranges from big waterfall drops to class IV rapids to swift little riffles. The river is exceptionally clean and clear – in many places we could see straight down to the cobbles on the bottom. In the big drops the glacier blue water fizzes into white bubbles, the kind of cold oxygen-rich water the returning salmon and steelhead need.
“Surrounded by Forest”
The White Salmon is narrow and intimate. You’re surrounded by forest. Old cedars and sword ferns crowd the banks of the steep basalt canyon. With the flow at a low – but typical for early autumn – 500 cfs (cubic feet per second), the paddle rafting was pretty technical. Our guide did a great job navigating us between boulders, around old logs, and down steep chutes.
I asked him how the river has changed now that the dam is gone. He said he has already seen steelhead jumping up Husum Falls and BZ Falls – a great sign of the resilience of these fish. Dam removal has opened up 33 miles of habitat for steelhead and 14 miles of habitat for chinook, chum, and coho salmon.
He told me there is a big log jam near the old dam site – one of the reasons we couldn’t float all the way down through the lower river yet. We had to take out upstream, at a spot where the old reservoir used to be. Boaters are itching to explore the lower river. Thanks to the dam removal, there will now be an additional five miles for recreational boating. About 25,000 paddlers use the river each year and recreation is an important part of the local economy.
As we got to the end of our float, we saw the former lake level begin to appear on the riverbank. At first we noticed just three feet of exposed rock-studded dirt. Then as we floated the new current, the exposed banks got taller – 10 feet, 50 feet. I saw an old wooden boat that must have sunk in the reservoir, now perched high up on the bank.
Since dam removal began last fall, the rain and the river’s flow have been re-sculpting and healing this place, washing away the silt and sediment that had accumulated in the reservoir. We will see more big changes once the rains begin this fall and winter.
In all of our work helping communities around the country remove outdated and unsafe dams, we’ve found that people are often surprised at how quickly rivers restore themselves once a dam is torn down. People often express amazement at how quickly the river finds its old channel, at how fast the banks green up with vegetation and how fast the fish and wildlife return.
And it’s true – rivers are remarkably resilient if we give them a chance.
It’s great to see the progress on the White Salmon. But this is just the beginning. I’m excited to witness this new chapter in the river’s story, to watch and learn and share as the process of restoration unfolds.
Check out NG’s video of the Condit Dam coming down: