A Rush of Data From Removal
by Editorial Board
National attention has focused recently on the Olympic Peninsula, where workers have started to dismantle the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River near Port Angeles. The project is massive, the largest dam-removal project in North American history.
In our backyard and out of the glare of the national spotlight, the Condit Dam is coming down on the White Salmon River, which forms a sliver of the border between Klickitat and Skamania counties. Tearing down the dam is no small feat; at 125 feet tall, the dam is actually taller than the 109 feet of the Elwha Dam but well shy of Glines Canyon's 210 feet. The Condit, for its part, is the third largest removal project in the country.
The dams on both rivers hold many other similarities. Private companies built them about a century ago to provide power generation. None of the dams had fish ladders. Their power output is relatively small, diffused by the development of the Northwest power grid a few decades after the dams' construction. In recent years PacifiCorp, Condit's owner, produced about 15 megawatts from the dam and decided the $100 million price tag for fish passage, required for the dam's relicensing, wasn't feasible.
On the Olympic Peninsula, Indian tribes and environmentalists leveraged changes in federal law into the dams' removal. Congress in 1992 passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, which removed the dams from the relicensing process; the federal government acquired them and then started the process to remove them.
The Condit will come down within the next year, while dismantling the Elwha dams will require three years. In both cases, a century of sediment has built up behind the dams, and White Salmon anglers and other river users fear the runoff will smother all life in the 3.3 miles from Condit to the river's confluence with the Columbia River.
Scientists say the sediment will settle behind the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia, and the additional dirt and gravel on the river bottom will help aquatic species like lamprey. But they won't know for sure until the backed-up water is done flowing, which may prove instructive as work continues on the Elwha dams.
Scientists several years back did pick up valuable information during a temporary drawdown of the reservoir behind the Glines Canyon dam, but there's still much they don't know. They do know the backup of silt and other material is massive: The two lakes behind the Elwha dams have impounded 24 million cubic yards of sediment, about 10 times the amount on the White Salmon. When completed, the White Salmon project will reopen 33 miles of the river for steelhead and 14 miles for threatened chinook salmon. The Elwha project will open about 70 miles to salmon and other migratory fish.
Talk of dam removal spawns nervous reactions in Central Washington, whose economy depends on the power generation, navigational aid, irrigation supply and recreational opportunities offered by harnessing the region's great rivers. That nervousness carried over to these projects, too. On the White Salmon, the counties received mitigation fees, and Klickitat County received water rights and some bridge reinforcement work. On the westside, the Elwha project also came with controversy over the loss of power generation, the impact of sediment downstream and lost recreation due to the lakes' drawdown.
Environmentalists will use any chance to trumpet the removal of Snake River dams, citing loss of fish habitat and other issues. Northwest politicians, backed by public opinion, have successfully resisted, and comparisons should stop right there. The Elwha and White Salmon projects entailed minor tradeoffs to restore the fish runs. Tearing down Snake dams would wreak massive economic upheaval on the entire Northwest.
What will happen to the Elwha and White Salmon rivers themselves is a scientific, educated guess. Educated, but a guess nonetheless. The Seattle Times quoted Gordon Grant of the U.S. Geological Survey as asking in 2010 about the Elwha project, "Is anyone prepared for the project not to work?" Indeed, these targeted projects will prove a learning experience for the whole Northwest.
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