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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Witnessing Liquid Liberty

Written by Tom Uniack, WWC's conservation director.

I recently had the unique opportunity to bear witness to the emancipation of a river.

For the first time in a century, with the breaching of the massive 125 feet high and 471 feet long Condit Dam, the White Salmon River is now running freely from its source to its mouth at the mighty Columbia River.

An official dam breaching celebration (limited to less than 100 people) was held to observe the decommissioning of the 98-year old Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in southwestern Washington.

I had this great opportunity because Washington Wilderness Coalition was a party to the settlement agreement for the dam decommissioning, which took two decades to be realized. Before the dam was breached, there was a stirring ceremony and traditional singing from Yakama Nation tribal elders, who are eager to see the river return to its former glory and for the eventual return of salmon. The crowd included additional tribal representatives, conservationists, whitewater paddlers, federal and state agency biologists and officials and engineers, and employees working for PacifiCorp Energy who owns and operates the dam.

As a group of us waited in anticipation perhaps 1,000 yards from the dam, warning horns sounded and there was a loud blast as 800 pounds of explosives blew a hole in the bottom of the dam. As a torrent of gray water shot out from the base of the dam turning to a chocolate brown, cheers of joy rose up all around me.

A Dana Lyons song began to course through my head. This beautifully simple song titled Drop of Water, chronicles a river being set free.

Bending down the steel

In a raging that is real

A tearing torrent you can feel

Water rushing to the sea

And now the river is free

It was amazing to see nature return down river after being restrained for so long. Engineers estimated that the reservoir behind the dam would take 6 hours to drain. The river did it in 45 minutes. You can watch the video of the explosion here.

The rest of the dam will come down piece by piece over the next year leaving a renewed legacy for the White Salmon River. Its removal will open 33 miles of habitat for steelhead and 14 miles of habitat for Chinook salmon. One long term fisheries biologist studying salmon on this river says fish could be above the dam as early as March 2012. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have already been moving salmon above the dam this summer and fall to spawn and hope that their offspring will return in later years.

The removal of the Dam will also open up 5 new miles of churning rapids and river canyons for rafters and kayakers to explore. Local rafting businesses like Wet Planet and other businesses in towns like White Salmon will benefit economically in future years.

With two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula undergoing removal just one month ago, the removal of the Condit dam seems to be establishing a trend here in Washington State. For the benefit of fish, wildlife and our children we can only hope it continues.

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