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Monday, May 21, 2012

The White Salmon: A River Reborn

It’s not often this Rat gets to commune with his fellow bank-dwellers, let alone a horde of 750 of them. But that’s exactly what happened two weeks ago, when river rats from all over the country—the world, actually—converged in Portland, Oregon.

What, beyond an appearance by the Pied Piper himself, could attract so many from so far—a 20-year Limburger, perhaps? (Definitely…but not this time.) In this case, we gathered for River Rally an annual celebration of river and environmental victories hosted by the River Network and (for the first time) the Waterkeeper Alliance. It was the largest international gathering of river rats to date. To the terror of some, it appears that we river rats are multiplying. Rapidly.

Time and time again over the weekend, Rat heard inspirational tales of countless steadfast and dedicated river rats, toiling away to protect their local river, stream, bay, sound, or slough. Many of them, it appears, are winning these battles, and we rightly celebrated them with good food and drink, sometimes until the wee hours of morning. But even this party-loving Rat needs a break from the reveling, so I stole away up the Columbia River Gorge to see the recently-uncovered new digs of the White Salmon River.

The former site of Northwestern Lake--now the free-flowing White Salmon River--1/4 mile upstream of the breached Condit Dam.
The White Salmon, as you may have heard, is just about tops for recent river success stories. It, combined with its Washington brethren the Elwha River, represents the largest dam removal effort to date in the nation. The White Salmon enters the mighty Columbia River—historically known for its epic salmon and steelhead runs—about 25 miles upstream of the Bonneville Dam, the lowest dam on the Columbia. The narrow canyons and raging rapids of the White Salmon are a powerful force, so much so that you humans decided to plop a hydropower dam on it (as you like to do, it seems).

The Condit Dam, built in 1913, had long lost its maximum power-generating capacity over its 100-year lifespan, due the buildup of an estimated 2,300,000 cubic yards of sediment that reduced reservoir storage by 60% (Steve Stampfli, Condit Hydroelectric Project, Information Series, Sheet 1). Additionally, the dam’s owner, PacificCorp, in order to obtain a new Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) license, would have been required (per the Endangered Species Act) to get salmon and steelhead past the 125-foot dam, to access native spawning grounds upstream. Between the cost of facility upgrades and lost reservoir storage, maintaining the dam as a hydropower facility was seen as unprofitable, and PacificCorp removed the dam this past October (culiminating years of discussion and planning efforts). Do yourself a favor and watch the stunning timelapse video of the breaching of the dam, taken by fellow river rats Andy Maser and Steve Stampfli, posted below.

Today, the White Salmon runs with all of the unbridled force and energy that a wild river should. The river has scoured through about 50 feet of sediment that was formerly lakebed to return to its original riverbed from 100 years ago. With a big spring snowmelt and runoff event in the next couple years, possibly along with some help from PacificCorp, it should wipe out much of the unsightly sediment on its banks in due time. PacificCorp will also revegetate the remaining sediment banks over the next two years, and maintain the site for the next ten years (Stampfli, Condit Hydroelectric Project, Information Series, Sheet 3).

Bank erosion is significant on Little Buck Creek, once a  'finger' of Northwestern Lake and now a tributary to the White Salmon. Note the dock protruding from the bank, and the section of dock lying on the bank ten feet below.
Rat spent a perfect May afternoon nosing around the banks of the river in the area upstream of the now-breached Condit Dam, at the former site of Northwestern Lake (in an area once known as “Jaws Canyon” prior to the construction of the dam). Notable were stumps of massive trees along the riverbank that were removed 100 years ago (because you can’t have trees growing up through the surface of an impoundment). Though the landscape still bears a somewhat traumatized appearance, its scars are only temporary…but its rejuvenation is eternal, and unmistakable.

Rat, not normally a mystical sort, was roused by the aura and vitality of this renewed place. It holds a sacred feeling, the kind usually ascribed only to houses of worship or holy sites. But here, below towering Douglas firs and western red cedars, the divine waters of the White Salmon run free again. For the first time in 100 years, it will beckon forth the return of coho salmon, spring and fall Chinook salmon, and steelhead trout runs, which form the life-giving base of the entire Pacific Northwest foodweb. Their inevitable return will signify a miracle of its own kind, rivaled by few others Rat has ever encountered.

Massive stumps, relics from tree removal efforts 100 years ago during construction of the Condit Dam, mark the former (original) riverbank.
*For an incredible wealth of resources about the White Salmon dam removal, see Andy Maser and Steve Stampfli’s exceptional blog White Salmon Restored: A Timelapse Project at Rat wishes to personally thank Andy and Steve for the content and information contained on their blog that was referenced or used in the writing of this post.

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