In the frothy water of the upper White Salmon River, fish have been spotted migrating upstream.
But these aren’t just any fish. These adult, hatchery-born steelhead are pioneers for their kind, returning to the decommissioned Condit Dam area for the first time in 99 years.
Built in 1913, the massive Condit Hydroelectric Project boasted a height and width of 125 feet and 90 feet, respectively, making it the largest dam to ever be removed in the United States. (Recently, this record was happily broken with the removal of the larger Elwha Dam and later this year with the Glines Canyon Dam.)
Condit Dam’s original design included fish ladders, which were destroyed by flooding in 1917. The Washington State Fisheries Department required then-owner Northwestern Electric Company to compensate by participating in a fish hatchery upstream.
However, the creation of the dam effectively ended natural salmonid migration on the White Salmon River. Condit Dam blocked passage for Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish that migrate from salt water to spawn in fresh water. For nearly a century, these fish had been confined to the lower 3.3 miles of the river.
|The removal of Condit Dam|
In 1996, the current owner, PacifiCorp, decided to intentionally breach the dam rather than purchase the expensive fish passage upgrades required for relicensing. After a lengthy process, the dam was ruptured in October 2011, and crews have been working around the clock to dismantle the rest of the dam by the August 31, 2012 deadline. Washington Wild was a party to an historic settlement agreement for the dam decommissioning, which took two decades to be realized. Last year, our Conservation Director, Tom Uniack, witnessed the official dam breaching. You can read about the dam breaching celebration here.
Amazingly, nine months after the dam was breached, wildlife officials have confirmed the presence of as many as 21 fish jumping per 20 minutes at Husum Falls and BZ Falls, both of which are upstream of Condit Dam. Last summer and fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved salmon above the dam to spawn, hoping that their offspring will return in later years.
However, the fish spotted by scientists with the Yakama Nation Fisheries program and the U.S. Geological Survey are adult steelhead, not the salmon which were artificially reintroduced.
|The White Salmon River|
This sighting confirms that fish are traveling of their own volition from the river’s mouth at the Columbia River to the upper White Salmon, past the decommissioned dam and into new habitat areas.
And the traveling isn’t easy for these fish. There is still a lot of sediment and debris in the once turgid waters. Fish must swim through a long tunnel at the base of the dam in order to migrate upstream, braving swift-moving waters and debris blockage.
However, the management plan for the river rests on the hope that salmon and steelhead will repopulate the river on their own without needing to be artificially reintroduced. Fall and spring Chinook salmon are expected to follow the steelhead in recolonizing the White Salmon River, as they tend to inhabit the three miles of river below the dam, and might make their way further upstream this year.
The emancipation of the White Salmon River is just another example of the triumph of nature over human industry and innovation. Just as the river will return to its natural course, the migrating fish will return to the river they call home.
Amy Bearman is Washington Wild’s TIPS (Teens in Public Service) summer intern. She will begin her freshman year at Stanford University next year. Hailing from Sammamish, Amy enjoys hiking, gymnastics, and Washington Wild’s office dogs.