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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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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.
"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
"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
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.
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