On Wednesday, representatives from PacifiCorp, county commissioners and local White Salmon River valley residents convened to discuss the progress, schedule, and problems arising with the recent removal of Condit Dam.
Largely instigated by the damage to their wells near the drained reservoir, the cabin and home owners within the Northwestern Lake community had the opportunity to present concerns to PacifiCorp engineer Tom Gauntt and Director of Compliance (go-to man for the project on the White Salmon River) Todd Olsen. The evening was also an opportunity for PacifiCorp to field other questions and provide an update to the decommissioning process.
To begin the meeting, Todd updated the group to the progress of the decommission and deconstruction of Condit Dam, focusing on several major categories. Cabin owners then had the opportunity to bring complaints forward.
Safety around the Condit Dam Site
For such an historical and dramatic event, PacifiCorp is immensely pleased that everyone has been obeying the rules. “There’s no blueprint for this,” commented Todd in regards to the big-blast format for draining the reservoir and removing the sediment. Essentially, engineers could only plan and implement procedures and precautions based on models and research, rather than previous hydropower removal experience due to the scale of the project.
PacifiCorp is pleased and grateful that no one has tried to break through the caution tape and become hurt in the process. For whitewater rafters and kayakers, the intrepid adventurers who notoriously rise to the challenge of difficulty accessed runs, this is a big deal.
Yet, even we know an unsafe situation when we see one. Most boaters don’t consider it fun to to ride downstream with landslides, trees, and other debris all ending in a concrete wall guarded by 100 foot mud cliffs.
Sediment Removal Plans
A Sediment Behavior Report has recently been released for a 90 day review of sediment transport. The report found that of the 1.7 million cubic yards of sediment initially trapped behind the dam, only 700,000 cubic yards remain. That’s a lot of mud that has already made it’s way out to the ocean.
The sandbar at the mouth of the White Salmon, now peaking the interest of windsurfers, does not impede Columbia River traffic, according the the coast guard. As well, operations at Bonneville Dam, the next downstream hydropower facility, are unaffected by the increased sediment load in the river.
The Yakima Nation is currently waiting to do any sediment clean-up to their in-lieu property at the mouth of the river.
Northwestern Lake Bridge Stabilization
The channel upstream of the bridge has cut down farther than anticipated, instigating additional stability assessments and plans for the Northwestern Lake bridge. Additional permits will have to be approved before further construction can occur.
Todd was adamant that as a part of the settlement agreement, “we are to provide a stable bridge, so we’re working toward that.”
Impacts to Cabins and Homes on PacifiCorp Property
The item at the top of everyone’s list was impact to underground wells.
Since the reservoir has drained, PacifiCorp has been alerted that 9 wells have significantly dropped in depth, have dried up entirely, or have sustained major damages. Although as “senior” water rights holders they are not required to deal with these types of “junior” water rights holder issues, PacifiCorp has offered support. The company will pay the first $5,000, with the owner paying the next $2,000. After that PacifiCorp will pay half of the next $5,500.
However, some of the wells have already cost over $20,000 to repair, and the cabin owners feel that the hydropower corporation should be footing 100% of the bill.
They also expressed concern over the one year window PacifiCorp has given to get that financial support, claiming that affects of the lost reservoir may take years to see.
During the next week, PacifiCorp will do core and soil investigations into ground below the most vulnerable cabins to determine whether they sit on silt, soil or bedrock. Cabin owners, notably those sitting on the edge of the river’s new canyon, expressed concern for the safety of the structures.
“We want to keep people safe,” Todd emphasized.
Future of Recreation on the White Salmon River
According to Todd, decommissioning is proceeding as scheduled, which means that the Northwestern lake take-out should be re-opened by the time spring rolls around. Todd did mention about needing to put “our thinking cap on” about boater access around the dam site. Due to steep canyon walls, access directly at the dam site may be impossible.
A fisherman spoke up about his sadness with the loss of a fantastic fishing resource (Northwestern Lake) and the damage done to such a beautiful place. He also expressed concerns that the Yakima Nation would not clean-up the fishing sites at the mouth of the river, a comment to which one registered Native American and cabin owner took offense.
The fisherman highlighted some of the underlying frustrations of different stakeholders in the process, those who valued the lake as a resource and those who see a free-flowing river and increased spawning grounds as a positive thing.
Dam Decommission Schedule
The removal of the flow-line, or conduit pipeline used to move water to the powerhouse downstream, has already begun. In order to facilitate this, parts of the dam structure have begun to be dismantled, to better access the flow-line.
Deconstruction of physical dam will officially begin in February. Crews plan to be able to reach the coffer dam easier, ensuring it is fully removed before the May 1st deadline.
By the end of the meeting it was evident that the removal of Condit Dam has certainly caused difficulties in the lives of the locals along the river. Rafting companies may look at the current state of the Lower White Salmon take-out and worry that it may not be ready by the first of the commercial rafting season. But mostly, the owners of the cabins along the river fear for their safety and the future of their homes on the land they have leased from PacifiCorp for so many years.
Pat Arnold, president of the Friends of the White Salmon River, ended the comment session with a tone of optimism toward a restored and revitalized river down the road, despite present pains it might be causing.
County officials hope to be able to host more regular meetings with PacifiCorp representatives in the future. Stay tuned to The Eddy Line for updates.
By Susan Hollingsworth, writer for Wet Planet Whitewater, Canoe & Kayak Magazine, American Whitewater, and any other river-related publication she can find.