Condit Dam Removal Takes Step Forwardby Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, July 2, 2002
The nation's dam-licensing agency has embraced an agreement to remove Condit Dam from the White Salmon River.
If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission accepts the recommendation of its staff, the 89-year-old Southwest Washington dam would be the largest removed in U.S. history.
In a long-awaited document just released, FERC staff endorsed an agreement reached three years ago between dam owner PacifiCorp and 21 agencies, tribes and environmental groups. The agency recommended a series of minor modifications to the agreement, mostly to prevent erosion and protect fish and wildlife.
The endorsement "is an essential step in implementing the settlement agreement," said Dave Kvamme, spokesman for Portland-based PacifiCorp.
The settlement, reached in September 1999, calls for the Portland utility to build up a fund of $17.15 million by October 2006. At that point, the utility would surrender its license to harness a public waterway. Then it would open a 12-foot-by-18-foot hole in the base of the 125-foot-high dam and blast through it, draining the dam's reservoir and allowing more than 2 million cubic yards of sediment to spill downstream in a matter of hours.
The removal project has been opposed by Klickitat and Skamania counties, as well as many lakeside cabin owners who worry they will lose prime trout fishing in the 1.7-mile Northwestern Lake.
Critics say PacifiCorp's "blow-and-go" plan will devastate 3.3 miles of the White Salmon River between the dam and the river's confluence with the Columbia. FERC itself dismissed the blow-and-go plan in 1996, saying it would take 10 to 20 years before the river flushed all the sediments.
"An unacceptable situation," the agency called it then.
The agency's staff changed its mind in the report, which was mailed late last week. FERC staffers wrote that new information indicated fish migrating up the Columbia River would be able to find small refuge areas in the lower White Salmon even after the sediment washes down. Further, staff members cited PacifiCorp's commitment to contribute $500,000 to enhance tribal fishing areas in the lower river.
"Based on this new and more complete information, we no longer conclude that sediment deposition … would have such adverse environmental consequences," according to the FERC staff report.
Critics of the dam-removal plan cite recent reports by the Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Ecology, each of which highlights environmental damage that would occur from the blow-and-go plan. Critics say they want PacifiCorp to dredge an estimated 2.42 million cubic yards of sediment from behind the dam before they remove it, a prospect that would greatly increase the costs.
Fish passage required
The dam could be retained and relicensed. But FERC has made it clear it will require fish passage.
Because the dam's 14.7 megawatts represent a fraction of the utility's overall 1,100-megawatt hydropower capacity, PacifiCorp officials don't believe it's worth spending an estimated $30 million to install fish ladders. But dredging would make dam-removal even more expensive than fish ladders.
Jim Rhoads, a local resident active in opposing dam removal, said he wasn't surprised by the staff recommendation.
Rhoads said dam-removal critics will make their case to the five-member energy commission, hoping commissioners will take the rare step of going against a staff recommendation.
"If they don't, we're dead in the water," he said.
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