Friday, November 16, 2012

The White Salmon Runs Free!

Many of us wondered if the day would ever arrive, but after years of waiting it finally came in the form of a text message from PacifiCorp staff on a Saturday in November: “It’s official. The White Salmon is open! Spread the word. Safe paddling to all.” And with that, paddlers hit the water to experience a truly remarkable treasure—a new section of river that for the past century was buried beneath the placid waters of Northwestern Reservoir.

On an overcast morning a week later, we gathered on the banks of the White Salmon River giddy with anticipation for the opportunity to experience a new river. Just a year before, many of us stood on the lip of Condit Dam and watched the dramatic results of the explosive blast that breached the dam and drained the reservoir in a little more than an hour’s time—a reservoir that had been there for a century vanished before our very eyes. It was easy to view the scene before us as a wasteland of mud and debris, and hard to imagine it would ever look like a river again. But as we’ve observed at dam removal projects across the country, rivers have an incredible capacity for self restoration.

Over the months that followed the dam breach, contractors chipped away at the dam. It slowly shrunk in size while the mud washed away and the river began to flow clear again. This past September, the dam was completely gone, and as amazing as this may sound you could hardly tell where it once stood. Agonizing days then became weeks as the contractors continued their work to restore the river channel below the dam, which included removing massive logs that had once been buried in the reservoir sediments and then wedged in the White Salmon Narrows. Finally, the most hazardous logs to navigation were all removed, and PacifiCorp declared the river open for public use. Our day to experience the river had finally arrived.

We began the day’s journey from Wet Planet in Husum, launching as a flotilla of more than a dozen kayakers and at least as many rafters. The run began on the mild Class II section of the run known as the Lower White Salmon, which historically ended with the slackwater of Northwestern Reservoir. The river continued on at a good pace with fun Class II and a couple good features as we slowly descended below the surface elevation of the former reservoir. Old stumps appeared that were buried beneath the reservoir sediments for a century, and we could see vegetation starting to colonize the newly exposed banks, while the basalt outcrops along the banks were scrubbed clean of the thick coat of mud that had buried them.

Floating the White Salmon River through what was once Northwestern Reservoir.

Halfway down the old reservoir the river flowed past a dramatic basalt cliff on river right, with a bathtub ring stain marking the surface elevation of the historic reservoir. Here the gradient picked up and the river crashed through some great Class III whitewater as it followed a serpentine path through an incredibly beautiful section of basalt gorge with waterfalls cascading in. The scenic beauty of this section will only be enhanced as maidenhair ferns and mosses colonize these walls. Floating through this section, anticipation built as we passed through the bedrock gates that marked the site of Condit Dam. We could hardly recognize that a dam once towered over 100’ above this point, but whoops of joy echoed between the gorge walls as we pulled out on a gravel bar on river right to savor the moment. A spontaneous celebration ensued as Pat Arnold, representing Friends of the White Salmon, popped the cork on a bottle of champagne.

Just 40 years ago the White Salmon River faced a grim future with a proposal to develop a series of seven dams to harness the entire length of the river for hydropower. Friends of the White Salmon, a locally based advocacy group for the river, successfully fought off that proposal and in the early 1980’s began to advocate for restoration of salmon on the White Salmon River. At first the discussion focused only on fish passage around the salmon-blocking Condit Dam, but when PacifiCorp filed an application in December 1991 to renew their license for the hydropower project, the idea of dam removal began to germinate.

American Whitewater and Friends of the White Salmon made the first formal requests for a study of dam removal in 1992 as part of the federal licensing process. Rich Bowers was hired as American Whitewater’s first Conservation Director thanks to support from the Conservation Alliance and member companies, including Patagonia.

In comments filed that first year of the licensing process for Condit Dam, Rich wrote that a study was needed to “determine the recreation, fishery, flood damage mitigation, power production and other impacts associated with the removal of impoundments and in returning the White Salmon River to its truest sense of 'run-of-river'.” In 1993, during scoping for the Environmental Impact Statement, Rich requested “a detailed analysis of the whitewater boating opportunities in the lower White Salmon River that would be reestablished under a dam removal alternative, as well as the economic value associated with those expanded opportunities”.

In 1996, federal regulators completed a review of PacifiCorp’s license application and determined that keeping the dam in place and upgrading facilities to meet “modern environmental standards” was the preferred alternative. During the time when John Gangemi represented the interests of whitewater boaters for American Whitewater, it became apparent that the required upgrades were going to be much more costly than dam removal. The dam produced very little power and it became clear that the dam could not produce this power economically. Katherine Ransel, working for American Rivers, represented a coalition of conservation groups including American Whitewater and successfully secured a settlement agreement between dam owner PaciifCorp, resource agencies, and river conservation groups for dam removal. The agreement was signed in 1999 and called for the dam to be removed in 2006.

Federal regulators analyzed this agreement and recommended dam removal as the new preferred alternative in 2002. The plan was not without controversy however, and at a memorable public hearing Daniel Dancer launched into his song extolling the glories of a salmon returning to a free-flowing White Salmon River, to the tune of Neil Young's “Long May They Run.”  Foes of dam removal raised their collective voice in an impromptu “God Bless America” and pandemonium ensued as federal regulators threatened to shut down the meeting. Order was restored and Daniel was allowed to finish his musical testimony but it was not an end to the controversy. Despite the objections, the removal plan moved forward. As the date for removal approached in 2006 however, it was clear that the project was languishing and the County even mounted an effort to acquire the dam from PacifiCorp. The necessary regulatory steps were not proceeding in part due to continued opposition from the County and a pending threat of litigation. It was around this time that Keen Footwear stepped up to support American Whitewater’s effort to launch a stewardship program based in the Pacific Northwest. With a regional office in close proximity to the project, American Whitewater was able to take on a leadership role in moving the agreement through the final steps of the regulatory process. Working with our partners in the Hydropower Reform Coalition—it was truly a team effort involving several local, regional, and national organizations—we got the project back on track and applied the consistent pressure that was necessary to bring the project to fruition. As we all stood near the bank of the river above the dam that day a little more than a year ago and felt the ground shake with the blast of 700 lbs. of dynamite we knew there was no turning back—Condit Dam was destined for removal.

Standing there at the base of Condit Dam a year later drinking champagne, it was rewarding to reflect back on the long journey that had brought us to that day. Watching the joy and excitement on everyone’s faces, it quickly became apparent what really brought Condit Dam down. It was not the poor economics of the project, the power of the Endangered Species Act, or even the fishway prescriptions resulting from Section 18 of the Federal Power Act. It really came down to a simple fact—people care deeply about this river. It was the kayakers who went out to enjoy the river on their free weekends,  the fishermen who have a spiritual connection to the river, members of the Yakama Nation whose connection to the river predates all of us, the school kids who acted out the dam breach at countless public hearings, and others who just enjoyed hanging out by the river. For all those people, the White Salmon River mattered and it was this community of folks who ultimately brought the dam down.

Standing there at the former dam site, our celebration wasn’t done–we all had more new river to run. Soon we were back in our boats in nervous anticipation of Steelhead Falls  a short distance downstream. The mile and a half below Condit Dam was largely dewatered over the past century as the flow of the river was routed through a pipe to the powerhouse downstream. While some had explored this section of river over the years, it was largely characterized by a series of stagnant pools harboring the debris and detritus that occassionaly washed over the dam. This section contains the most significant whitewater on the run as the river plunges over Steelhead Falls, a ledge drop that feeds into a meaty hydraulic that is Class IV to V depending on flows. About half the group portaged the falls-including the rafters, but several folks fired it up and everyone styled it. Those considering their first run are advised to go with someone who can recognize the drop because it comes up quick at the end of a Class III rapid. As flows increase the intensity of the hydraulic builds and the portage route closes out. Below Steelhead Falls the river passed through one of the most dramatic sections of river anywhere—the White Salmon Narrows, where gardens of mosses and ferns spill in over the high gorge walls that are beautiful organic fomations of pillow basalts.

Susan Hollingsworth paddles through Steelhead Falls.

Emerging from the Narrows, the river passed by the old powerhouse on river left and it was in this section that we saw the most spawning salmon. Massive fish made good use of the abundant supply of gravel that can now move downstream and is no longer held back by Condit Dam. All were deeply moved by the presence of these majestic fish that were so quickly taking advantage of the benefits of this restored river. A short distance downstream, the river cascaded through one final Class III sequence before settling in to the calm waters of the pool held back by Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. It was only about a half mile of flatwater paddling down to the point where the White Salmon joins the Columbia and the take-out. While the take-out marked the end of the day’s journey it was really much more than that. It was the end of a long road extending over decades to see this project come to a successful outcome, and it was the start of a new beginning for a restored White Salmon River.

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