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Well owners want PacifiCorp to pay more for damage done by removal of Condit Dam

cond1_9.JPGView full size PacifiCorp contractors blew a hole at the bottom of Condit Dam in October. The breaching quickly drained Northwestern Lake, leaving a gully about 100-feet deep. The utility is stabilizing slopes, and will replant the former lakebed next fall.
From the perspective of cabin owners near Northwestern Lake, the much-ballyhooed breaching of Condit Dam in October was a downer: The 92-acre lake disappeared within an hour, leaving a steep, muddy gully behind. 

Now, some cabin owners say, dam owner 
PacifiCorp is adding insult to injury by declining to cover the full cost of replacing wells that ran dry after the lake disappeared. 

Last week, PacifiCorp offered to reimburse cabin owners and nearby well owners on private land up to $5,500 for well replacement costs or for hook up to the city of 
White Salmon's water system, even though the utility insists there's no legal requirement to pay anything. 

Kathy Carlile, a cabin owner who shares a well with six others, said they had to pay $15,000 to drill a new, deeper well after PacifiCorp contractors blew a hole in the bottom of the dam and water levels dropped. Regulatory filings show well troubles were expected. 

Carlile said she assumed PacifiCorp would pay the full cost given the clear connection between the breaching and the well problems. PacifiCorp, which serves 1.7 million customers in six Western states, reported net income of $566 million for 2010. 

"We're really at the bottom of the pecking order in this whole thing," Carlile said. "This is chump change to them, and it would buy them some goodwill." 

At 125 feet high, Condit is the third largest dam in the nation to be decommissioned. The breaching opens up as much as 33 miles of stream for salmon and steelhead, including two runs on the endangered species list, and provides new runs for kayakers and rafters on the White Salmon River, known internationally for its whitewater and falls. 

Condit dam is breached, letting the White Salmon River run freeCondit dam is breached, letting the White Salmon River run freeThe Condit dam was breached today, allowing the reservoir behind it, Northwestern Lake, to drain into the White Salmon River. The dam's fall will unleash one of the Northwest's cleanest and wildest rivers, originating from glaciers on Mount Adams.Watch video
PacifiCorp figures the cost of removal at $35 million, including costs to deal with many of the side effects of dam removal. The company agreed to relocate a city of White Salmon water line, replant the lakebed, shore up Northwestern Lake Bridge, manage sediment and erosion and run a new water line to a nearby orchard that once drew water from the lake. 

GS.41WELL121.jpgView full size
Todd Olson, PacifiCorp project manager, said its lawyers are confident the company has no legal liability when it comes to the wells, and the company has to take the impact on ratepayers into account when deciding how much to reimburse. Well owners will get the benefit of new wells, he said, so it's reasonable to have them share costs. 

"It goes back to, what's the legal obligation here, and there isn't one," Olson said. "But we understand it's not fun to be without water. We think the offer is pretty fair." 

PacifiCorp's offer would require damaged well owners on and near its lands to sign agreements by the end of 2012 and to waive claims for future damages. 

Cabin owner Wayne Lease says he worries that the water table could fall even more, especially when heavy agriculture pumping begins in the summer. Water quality problems, such as high turbidity, could also emerge as the river continues to cut a path through the lakebed. Early indications are the aquifer is not replenishing itself, he said. 

cond.now.4small.jpgView full sizeThe view from the front of the Lease's cabin this week. Dam breaching freed the White Salmon River, providing new runs for wild salmon, kayakers and rafters. But it eliminated a 92-acre recreational lake. "It's a way of life that's been destroyed," Lease says.
Olson said well owners concerned about future problems should work with their well driller and water engineer to ensure they drill in the right spots and deep enough to avoid surface water influence. 

PacifiCorp counts 53 cabin owners leasing utility land near the lake. Its offer is good for cabin owners and nearby private land owners who can document well problems, which could run as high as 40 to 50 wells, Olson said. So far, owners of eight wells, four private and four on utility land, have reported problems. 

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's "surrender order," issued in 2010 to authorize dam removal, anticipated the well problems and cited PacifiCorp's argument that it would not be held liable under Washington water law because of its senior water rights. The dam was built, and the lake created, in 1913, and the company doesn't know of any wells built before then, Olson said. 

The order defers to state authority. But it also cites the Federal Power Act at the end of the well discussion, saying that under the federal law "PacifiCorp will be liable for any damages caused by its actions." Celeste Miller, a FERC spokeswoman, said she couldn't elaborate on what that language means when it comes to well obligations. 

condit.befor_9.JPGView full sizeWayne and Laurel Lease Dam in front of their home before the dam was breached, with Northwestern Lake in the background. Their 28-year-old well, which also services six other properties, had never lost water before, Wayne Lease says. But it showed falling water levels less than two weeks after the dam breaching.
But Dave Johnson, a board member of the Cabin Owners of Northwestern Lake Association, says the group is convinced full reimbursement is required under federal law. 

According to a groundwater well settlement agreement sent to cabin owners, the company will pay the first $3,000 of costs, then cover a portion of remaining costs up to a $5,500 maximum. Cabin owners who lost their lake view will see rent reductions beginning in January, the company said in a November letter. And the company will begin replanting the former lake area next fall. 

The hoopla over dam removal has left cabin owners feeling overlooked, Lease said. They could try to take their case to court, he said, but they would be up against a company with significant legal resources. 

Land owners around other dams being considered for removal should pay attention, he said. PacifiCorp is scheduled to take down four dams on the Klamath River in 2020. 

"Regardless of the outcome here," Lease said, "this is going to set a precedent for any dam removal in the future." 

-- Scott Learn



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GeoHydro2011 December 20, 2011 at 6:49PM


That is a toughy...I can see both sides of this story.
On the one hand, when you lease or buy land near a reservoir created by a dam, you have to have some idea that the water table or potentiometric surface as the case may be is going to fluctuate...in this case the water table appears to be dropping.
However, if you build a dam and reservoir you have some idea that you are affecting both stream and aquifer and water tables will fluctuate.
I'd say what was the elevation of the water table before dam closure? Perhaps wells could be drilled to that elevation and the costs shared. 
However, if the regional aquifer has been adversely affected by others and the pre-dam water table elevation has dropped due to pumping or stream diversions by others, drilling wells this extra increment should probably be the responsibility of the well owner. If the well owner has a senior right, and they can show that junior pumping or diversions have affected the pre-dam water table, water law seems clear.


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Ben December 21, 2011 at 5:53AM


Geo -- Given the dam's age (built in 1913), I doubt much if any data exist on water levels in area aquifer(s) prior to dam construction. There may have been some exploratory drilling done for geologic mapping purposes as part of the design phase for the dam that may provide some indication on pre-construction groundwater levels, but -- even if that exists -- the data likely will be sketchy and may be unreliable as such measurements probably would not have been the focus of that work.

When you consider the height of the dam (125 feet) and resulting reservoir depth, it's entirely possible that at least some of the shallower water-bearing zones used by some wells may be entirely artificial; caused by seepage out of the reservoir over the last century. Consequently, it may not be a simple matter of deepening a well to a lower part of the same aquifer. It may require exploratory drilling to identify a new, deeper aquifer that is recharged naturally under the now-natural hydrologic regime.

Regarding the water law at question, I recall there being some precedent in some western states about artificial groundwater levels being maintained by, say, long-term irrigation, that gave rights to some well owners in certain circumstances if they had come to rely on those artificially-enhanced water levels. That may have been in California or Nevada water law, so it may not apply here, but I'm not as confident that the well owners have zero recourse or expectation for financial assistance. That said, I think PacifiCorp's offer is pretty generous and agree with them that the owners of new, deepened wells gain benefits beyond simple continuance of water supply and therefore should share in the cost of installing the new well.

As for project manager Olson's advice, well owners are certainly welcome to contact a "water engineer" for assistance. My advice, however, would be to enlist the aid of a competent hydrogeologist, a specialized type of geologic practice that is licensed by the State of Washington, rather than an engineer. The task faced by these well owners is more in the field of hydrogeology than engineering.

Something PacifiCorp may want to consider would be to have the company and the owners/tenants collectively fund a hydrogeologic investigation of the area to develop an understanding of deeper water bearing zones and their recharge/discharge regime that can then be used by drillers for developing replacement water supply. The cost of such a study, which would likely be in the several hundred thousand dollar range, is beyond the scope of what an individual could pay. Perhaps the tenants' share could be amortized by a lease surcharge levied by PacifiCorp over the next 30 to 50 years on leased cabins. Having access to an integrated regional-scale study would substantially increase the chances that drillers and well owners could install successful, reliable water supply wells rather than waste a lot of money drilling multiple dry wells, known in the business as "dusters."


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GeoHydro2011 December 21, 2011 at 7:08AM


Much of what you said (lack of water table data) muddys the water that much more.
Still a toughy--I'd as a well owner would either cut my losses and sell my lot or enjoy the cost-sharing benefits offered by others.


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David Johnson December 21, 2011 at 1:31PM


A lot has been missed here. First, FERC "recommended" that a study be performed before and after the dam decommissioning and PC elected not to. 2) Almost ALL are mixing up Water Rights vs. Liability. True, PacifiCorp has Senior water rights by state law, BUT those laws which are some 338 pages does not cover "Liability" for your actions. Liability is covered by FERC and US Code 803. It covers all liability and includes, homes that are sliding away, downed trees, etc. PC could have avoided a lot of additional expense IF they had done the Mitigation Study that was recommended. FERC told PC in there Surrender Order....yes you can drain the lake, BUT you are liable for all personal property damage per the laws stated above.
Also, some of these wells had as much 100ft. of head and when the lake was drained down 85' there are many went completely dry and they were fine for 40+years until the lake was drained.
PC basically took a gamble that they would be ok. They even told FERC that. Bad guess!!!!


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iamlucky13 December 21, 2011 at 3:18PM


Actually, given the typical cost of such studies, and the fact that we're talking about 8 wells out of a potential 40-50, it probably would have been cheaper for Pacificorp to simply plan to replace the wells regardless and forego the study.

The most equitable solution, however, would in my opinion be to prorate the replacement cost of affected wells based on the number of years such a well should be expected to remain serviceable and the actual well age.

It would seem to me in particular that for land leased from Pacificorp where they allowed a well to be drilled, there was an implicit understanding that the lease included the water resources that existed at the time of signing.


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Dizzy December 21, 2011 at 7:21AM


The moderator has been notified that there is a polite, well-reasoned, and informed discussion here in the comment section for an Oregonian story. You people make me sick.


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nutmeg31 December 20, 2011 at 8:42PM


The dam was old and removal was mandated. Pacific Corp should not be held liable for water wells that were drilled decades post creation of the lake. If you move next to a busy airport you don't complain about the runway noise.


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martymoose1 December 20, 2011 at 9:20PM


The dam removal was not mandated. Fish ladders were mandated and the cost for those was more than the removal.


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ryguy24000 December 20, 2011 at 9:26PM


I see both sides too, but a smart investor would have considered selling when the whole Dam removal(on the White Salmon) thing started, what, 10 years ago.


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David Johnson December 21, 2011 at 8:01PM


Smart investor....these are peoples homes and lives. Some for 40 years. Had there been full disclosure of what the total effect was going to be probably 100% may have considered it if conscience permitted. We didn't get it and if there were any unethical cabin owners I suppose they could have skated around full disclosure to dump their homes onto some poor unsuspecting person. I'm sure all of us find that suggestion appalling. We were saddened (much too light an adjective) but prepared to lose the serenity and beauty of the lake in favor of the salmon. What we were, and are not prepared for is losing what we pay for which includes water to drink and standing on our front porch without taking our life in our hands.
Carol & David Johnson


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ryguy24000 December 20, 2011 at 9:27PM


Yeah the cost of fish ladders was way higher, so it was mandated


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ltjd December 21, 2011 at 3:25AM


Yup....that really looks like some kinda primo trout stream now.

I mean, a nice SALMON stream....right?


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jwh2008 December 21, 2011 at 6:13AM


Hope the salmon own atvs so they can ride up the mud rut made by the decision to remove the dam.


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averagejoe44 December 21, 2011 at 7:46AM


A lot of talk about looking for water to drill into! I for one see the positive attribute of paying for city water ! Pacific Corp offered to pay for the water line hook up costs...that should be all that is required! It's a predictable supply with a fixed cost to hook up to! This is all the money that should be offered to these cabin owners! Either city water. Or the same amount of dollars to use on the well! All this so "hundreds"of salmon will return from the ocean starting in perhaps ten more years! Thirty three miles of river opened up...hundreds of fish .....this must not be about the fish I bet!


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David Johnson December 22, 2011 at 7:00PM


Average Joe mentioned the PacifiCorp offer to put in the City Water line. We (I'm a cabin owner) do not have any such offer from them yet and that is only for 4 homes that happened to know be in the new area since the City of White Salmon moved the old line that went under the old lake. There are about 13 other cabins that are about 1 1/2 miles from the water line and THEY have the wells that are drying up. That line would probably cost PC a min of $1M +. When they replaced the old line across the lake, the new line was only 1 mile long and cost was over $1.5M. Total costs for the 8 wells that feed 13 cabins is less than $100K and PC wants to fight and give 50% of the cost only when they ARE liable. Makes no sense does it ?



Last week, PacifiCorp offered to reimburse cabin owners and nearby well owners on private land up to $5,500 for well replacement costs or for hook up to the city of White Salmon's water system, even though the utility insists there's no legal requirement to pay anything.



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Edward3474 December 22, 2011 at 7:01PM


Average Joe mentioned the PacifiCorp offer to put in the City Water line. We (I'm a cabin owner) do not have any such offer from them yet and that is only for 4 homes that happened to know be in the new area since the City of White Salmon moved the old line that went under the old lake. There are about 13 other cabins that are about 1 1/2 miles from the water line and THEY have the wells that are drying up. That line would probably cost PC a min of $1M +. When they replaced the old line across the lake, the new line was only 1 mile long and cost was over $1.5M. Total costs for the 8 wells that feed 13 cabins is less than $100K and PC wants to fight and give 50% of the cost only when they ARE liable. Makes no sense does it ?


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kurmudgeon00 December 21, 2011 at 9:25AM


If you rely on a relatively shallow well, with a high water table created by a tall dam, you shouldn't be surprised if the water table declines when the dam is removed. Something you'd learn is a basic Geology 101 course.


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boldaddy December 21, 2011 at 11:20AM


INMO Pacific corps is being generous in offering anything in terms of money. Logic tells you that the water table was high because of the man-made lake.


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DotheRightThingToo December 21, 2011 at 2:07PM


White Salmon City water Hook up Fee is $8,816 plus cost to install water lines 1 mile beyond City connection point, so a well is less costly. Plus at $50.00 monthly fees it's cheaper to manitain a well.
$5500 per well is generous of PacifiCorp (PC)/ $355 million net profit owned by MidAmerican Energy owned by Berkshire Hathaway aka Warren Buffett.
The taxpayer subsidizes the operation of PacifiCorp's Wind Farms so their private company can be profitable when wind doesn't blow. 
The settlement agreement which ratified the breaching of Condit Dam stated it as the "Most economical option to PC and its ratepayers in regards to Dam Removal". If you could flush a Super Fund Site into the Columbia River and not be held accountable for the aftermath, wouldn't that option be the most economical approach ? This option is even a greater profit entitlement program then subsidizing Wind Farms. 
With the loss of the water wells the conservatory groups are now taking the position the land will no longer support a two acre zone per one piece of improved property and should be adjusted to 20 acre minimums. Embracing this would substantially decline the revenues that contribute to a much needed sustained tax base in Skamania & Klickitat counties.
Be aware there are a number of improved properties (cabins/homes) that are in serious jeopardy as a result of erosion along the river bank and the spring run off will further aggravate this problem. 
Corporate doublespeak is alive and well at PC. Todd Olson, Project Manager for the Condit Dam removal project on the White Salmon River speaks of "concerns for ratepayer impact" as a good reason for denying full reimbursement for wells that were effected by the dam breach. I did the math. If, as Mr. Olson claims, Pacificorp were to fully reimburse all 50 wells at $15,000 apiece, PC would be out $750,000, or a paltry 2.1% of the $35,000,0000 estimated as a project total. As only 8 wells have been affected to date, and the doubling of that number would be a stretch, it's likely that PC would have to reimburse a small fraction of 1% of the total project cost. As co-owner of a Condit area primary residence, I'm offended that Todd believes that any of us are naive enough to buy his "ratepayer concern" angle. As for his claim that PC attorneys are confident that they "have no legal responsibility," that's very much in doubt according to FERC. FERC sited FPA law that states in a cause of action (wells are affected), that damages are PC's 100% liabilty, not the Federal governments. 
All arguments aside, whatever happened to doing the right thing? Pacificorp, a company that boasted $355,000 in profits last year, why don't they just pay for the mess they've made and move on? 
Do they want the taxpayer to protect its profits with another bail-out legislation, this time for Dam Demolition i.e. Hydro Energy Project removal? Rep Doc Hastings wrote a bill that has passed the House and is held up in the Senate making PC responsible for all costs associated with Dam removal plans. Taxpayers and homeowners need a Bailout instead of Banks & Private multibillion dollar companies.
We fought in the 12 year long FERC proceedings to get PC to dredge the lakebed, construct a fish ladder with new technology, and retain Hydro Energy which is the cleanest form of renewable energy production. PC stated it was too expensive, and it was a business decision to meet with government agencies, tribes, and conservatory groups, but leave the taxpaying County residents out of the negotiations.
PC didn't do the right thing by planning the dam removal, it needs to be held accountable for all of the consequences.


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GeoHydro2011 December 21, 2011 at 3:57PM


Dang, this is a sticky wicket.
I just don't think I would have built a home and drilled a well on leased land.
Don't get me wrong, I am not a big fan of big corporations.
But I just would come to expect that the land owner reigns supreme here.
If I were to build a home on land I owned up on a sandy bluff at the beach, I would expect that eventually the bluff is going to go away--I probably wouldn't build the house in the first place therefore.
Still, if it were me and I was Pacific, I'd pay the people that leased my land to end their leases and be done with it.
For those nearby land owners that drilled shallow wells completed in sediments in hydraulic connection with the lake slash stream after dam closure and enjoyed an artificially elevated water table, the question remains murky--I'd likely deepen my well to the deeper regional basalt aquifer.
In the end, this is a great prelude to other landscapes where dam and reservoirs are slated to be dismantled and lessons could be learned by all.


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royalcroc December 21, 2011 at 9:13PM


"Salmon Numbers in Decline" has been a discussion point for quite awhile; even before Condit Dam was constructed.

Here are but two, of many readily available, published references which provide historic insight on Salmon numbers:

1. Chapman, D.W. (1986). “Salmon and Steelhead Abundance in the Columbia River in the Nineteenth Century,” Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 115:662-670.

2. McDonald, Marshall (1894). Report of the United States Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries on Investigations in the Columbia River Basin In Regard to the Salmon Fisheries, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.

Chapman's article contains an interesting graph of "Salmon Catch (Harvest) vs time (from about 1870 to 1970) as well as a listing of numerous other interesting references related to Salmon.

Marshall McDonald’s 1894 report states that “the investigations made by Professor Evermann and the parties under his direction establish conclusively the fact that there has been a very great reduction in the number of salmon frequenting the head waters of the Columbia River and its tributaries. This decrease is more notable in the main river.”

McDonald’s 1894 report also states that “they were abundant in the Columbia River at Kettle Falls as late as 1878. Since then there has been a great decrease. They have been scarce since 1882. Since 1890 there have been scarcely any at Kettle Falls.”

This 1894 report also states that “there is no reason to doubt- indeed the fact is beyond question- that the number of salmon now reaching the head waters of streams in the Columbia River Basin is insignificant in comparison with the number which some years ago annually visited and spawned in these waters. It is further apparent that this decrease is not to be attributed either to the contraction of the area accessible to them or to changed conditions in the waters which would deter the salmon from entering them.”

I believe one pertinent question to ask is this:

How will the removal of dams solve a problem (that of declining fisheries) which was noted decades before their construction?

To give some perspective, the problem was noted sometime prior to 1900 and the Condit Dam project was completed in the early 1910’s; more than 20 years later.

Will be an interesting item to watch; if Salmon are a leapin for joy in the near future now that the dam is gone....


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GeoHydro2011 December 22, 2011 at 8:20AM


People overfished salmon in the mid to late 1800s. 
Here is a good primer: http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/3_6.html
Believe if you want or not but people especially EuroAmerican settlers fished the hell out of the river.
The wild runs of salmon probably won't come back under the current climate and regulatory scheme--they may thrive here and there but they were like the Plains Bison--extirpated; see esp: http://www.epa.gov/wed/pages/staff/lackey/pubs/illusion.htm
Dams like Grand Coulee wiped out much if not all of the wild runs upstream of that dam but dams were not the sole cause of salmon extirpation--EuroAmerican settlers were.


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