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Northwest Newspaper Hydropower Articles

Dam Removal to Cut Both Ways

By KATHIE DURBIN Columbian

(Here is an interesting site and article on the Condit dam http://www.fwee.org/news/archive)

A Portland utility's plan for demolishing Condit Dam on the White Salmon River would be a death warrant for fish downstream and might violate the federal Endangered Species Act, says a new study released by the Washington Department of Ecology.

The 125-foot-high dam, owned by PacifiCorp, would be the highest ever removed in the United States. Its breaching, now proposed for October 2008, would open 33 miles of steelhead habitat and 14 miles of salmon habitat in the upper White Salmon blocked by the dam since 1913.

Fish advocates see the 92-year-old dam's demolition as an important national precedent for returning other rivers to a free-flowing state. But there's a downside for fish, too, according to the Department of Ecology's new draft environmental impact statement.

PacifiCorp proposes to tunnel and blast a
12-by-18-foot hole near the dam's base, drain Northwestern Lake and releasing more than 2 million cubic yards of sediment that has built up behind the dam.

The massive plume would kill all fish and other aquatic species below the dam and displace fish in the Columbia downstream to Bonneville Dam. It would also wipe out a population of endangered chum salmon, possibly for four or five generations.

"Because listed fish would be in the Bonneville Pool at that time, they would be displaced by the heavy sediment plume, which would likely be considered a 'take' under the Endangered Species Act," the EIS says.

Some of the sediment flushed downriver would bury an American Indian fishing site near the mouth of the White Salmon, according to the EIS. Turbidity spikes in both rivers are expected to continue for up to five years.

PacifiCorp has proposed lessening the impact by capturing returning fall chinook salmon before the dam is breached and transporting them to a hatchery for harvest of their eggs and milt to preserve the 2008 run. That tactic is less likely to work with endangered chum: "It is probably not feasible to trap (chum) for hatchery rearing," and their spawning gravels likely would remain be buried under silt the following year, the EIS said.

Few chum spawn above Bonneville Dam because the fish have difficulty navigating its fish ladders, said Carl Dugger, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. However, biologists found a small number of chum spawning in the White Salmon River a few years ago, he said. "These are more than likely just strays," Dugger said. "We don't consider it significant."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are preparing biological opinions that will assess the impact of the dam's breaching on threatened and endangered species.

The larger question is whether salmon stocks that are already depressed by the effects of Columbia River dams and reservoirs will be able to recover from additional impacts of the sediment release, the Department of Ecology said. Brent Foster of Columbia Riverkeeper, one of a dozen environmental groups to formally endorse the project, said breaching Condit Dam will be worth the temporary damage.

"There's no question that removing a big dam is going to impact fish and water quality, but in the long term, the benefits are going to radically outweigh the short-term costs," Foster said. "Condit Dam is a dam that is long past its useful life."

PacifiCorp has taken steps to work more closely with Klickitat and Skamania county officials, who claim the "blow and go" method, as they have dubbed it, would inflict unacceptable damage downstream. The White Salmon River is the boundary between the two Columbia Gorge counties.

The counties intervened in PacifiCorp's application for a federal permit to remove the aging dam in 2000. They remain opposed, and continue to retain Washington, D.C., attorney John Whitaker, an expert on federal dam relicensing, to represent them in dam-breaching proceedings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Klickitat County is bankrolling the legal challenge.

No second-guessing

Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck said he isn't trying to second-guess the utility's decision to demolish the dam. "We hate to see it go, but we understand it's a corporate decision on the part of PacifiCorp," he said. "Where we differ is in how much the siltation released from behind the dam will affect the lower reach of the White Salmon River. If the material behind the dam were to be contained, dredged and properly disposed of before the dam is taken out, we wouldn't challenge it."

PacifiCorp has rejected that option, which would cost an estimated $52 million in 1999 dollars, three times as much as "blow and go."

Struck said he worries about the impact of unleashing 92 years' worth of debris that lies beneath the reservoir, from leaking batteries to a submerged dump truck. "With as many residential home sites as there are around the lake, it's going to be a nasty couple of months for those people" when the dam is demolished, he said.

In 2002, the FERC gave PacifiCorp's plan a qualified endorsement, saying it provided "the best balance of developmental and nondevelopmental benefits." However, the agency's staff directed the company to prepare plans to protect public safety, control pollution of the river during dam removal and address the effect of falling groundwater levels on nearby wells.

PacifiCorp announced last week that it had filed applications for various county permits, including a shoreline permit from Klickitat County, as a prelude to breaching the dam in 2008.

Seeks clarification

"We have had meetings with each one of the commissioners individually to talk with them about the project," said project manager Gail Miller of PacifiCorp. "We have definitely tried to keep them up to speed."

At the same time, the company is seeking clarification from FERC about whether local permitting is required under the Federal Power Act.

"We have taken the position that we do believe the Federal Power Act preempts the county permits," Miller said.

PacifiCorp began the process of renewing its license for the dam in 1991. In 1996, FERC issued an environmental impact statement that required the company to provide fish passage at the dam at an estimated cost of $30 million.

The company said such a large investment would make the dam too expensive to operate. It offered instead to negotiate with all interested parties to find a lower-cost alternative.

In 1999, the company announced that it had reached a settlement with a dozen environmental groups, the Yakama Tribe, the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and other parties to breach the dam without dredging the sediment behind it.

Under terms of the settlement, the cost of dam removal was frozen at $17.15 million in 1999 dollars.

Critics said the Department of Ecology's status as a party to the settlement created a conflict of interest because the department will have to determine whether the project meets state water quality standards before it can issue the permit PacifiCorp needs to proceed.

At a hearing in July 2002, an attorney for the counties threatened to sue the Department of Ecology if officials approved PacifiCorp's project as designed, saying it would clearly affect water quality in the short term.

Two months later, the agency ordered PacifiCorp to conduct additional studies of how the sediment release would affect fish habitat and water quality, saying the state needed more information than the utility had so far provided.

Joye Redfield-Wilder, a spokeswoman in the Department of Ecology's Yakima office, said there was never any question that her department would conduct a rigorous review.

"There is no way under environmental laws that we can abdicate our responsibility to protect the environment," she said.

PacifiCorp originally planned to remove the dam in 2006. But faced with the requirement to conduct new studies, the company withdrew its FERC application temporarily. The two-year delay will increase the project's cost by about $3.3 million, Miller said. Revenue from operating the dam for two additional years will help offset that additional cost.

[News clippings posted on this site are copyrighted by the newspaper or magazine of original publication. These clippings were selected to further FWEE's not-for-profit mission of providing balanced and informative views concerning the sources, benefits and impact of using water as a renewable energy resource in the Northwest.]
 

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