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.
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.
"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.
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.
The 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.
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