The White Salmon River will soon run free for the first time in a century. So will the Elwha. There is no more hopeful, symbolic act of environmentalism than tearing down a dam and letting a river -- and its salmon -- go wild.
Crews are boring a tunnel into Condit Dam on the White Salmon. September will see a celebration and the long-anticipated first whacks at two dams on the Elwha. You want more? The four dams on the Klamath River are slated to go next, perhaps starting in 2020.
In every case, it would cost far more to provide fish passage now required by dam relicensing than it would to tear down the dams and replace the electricity they generated. On the Elwha, for example, virtually all of the electricity went to power a single mill, which is now moving to establish its own generation.
You're going to hear that breaching the dams on the White Salmon, the Elwha and the Klamath mean it is inevitable that many more dams are coming down, including the four large hydroelectric complexes on the Snake River.
Yes, more Northwest dams will fall, but the Snake dams are unlikely to be among them, at least anytime soon. Again, the dams coming down now have no fish passage and generate enough electricity to power a few thousand homes. In contrast, this region has spent tens of millions of dollars providing sophisticated fish passage systems on the Snake dams, and these facilities provide shipping access to Idaho and generate some 3,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power much of the Portland area.
The long-running battle over the Snake dams should not obscure or diminish the significant conservation victories on the White Salmon and the Elwha. Breaching the White Salmon will open up 14 miles of habitat on the river to threatened Lower Columbia chinook salmon and dozens of miles of river and tributaries to prized mid-Columbia steelhead.
Meanwhile, biologists predict that tearing down the dams on the Elwha and reopening 70 miles of tributaries will allow salmon stocks that have dwindled to about 3,000 to explode to more than 300,000 fish. Freeing the river also will re-establish the natural flow of sediment from the mountains to the coast, rebuilding wetlands, beaches and the estuary at the mouth.
For decades now biologists have watched salmon swim the five miles up the Elwha until they run headlong into the dam, where they pool at the base, swim in circles, swim downstream and back again, sometimes over and over. In three years, when the dams are cut and blasted away and the river channel restored, salmon will be able to swim deep into miles and miles of the pristine streams of the Olympic National Park to spawn.
All this brings to mind a speech former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall gave when he was inducted into the Northwest Steelheaders hall of fame. "If the salmon and steelhead are running, then as far as I am concerned, God knows that all is well in his world," McCall said. "The health of the environment is good if the salmon and steelhead are around. It is that simple."