NORTHWESTERN LAKE, Wash. - A lake made almost a century ago to provide power to Southwest Washington mills could be gone by this fall.
Starting in October, PacifiCorp could begin tearing out Condit Dam and draining down Northwestern Lake. When that happens, dozens of people with lake-front property will instead have homes on a giant mud pit.
Northwestern Lake was created when the 128-foot tall Condit Dam was built in 1913. It’s on White Salmon River, about 60 miles northeast of Portland and just three miles from where the White Salmon dumps into the Columbia River.
PacifiCorp is waiting for final word from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on plans for managing the area after the dam comes out.
They have already been awarded permits from Washington’s Department of Ecology allowing them to release 100 years worth of mud and silt backed up behind the dam into the Lower White Salmon River.
The conservation group American Rivers has been working for two decades with the Yakima Nation and Friends of The White Salmon River to get the dam removed. Right now it blocks salmon and steelhead from getting to the Upper White Salmon River.
PacifiCorp tried twice to build fish ladders on the dam early on, but they were destroyed by storms.
“When the dam is removed and the river can flow freely once again we’re going to see salmon and steelhead coming back to historic habitat,” American Rivers spokesperson Amy Kober said. “We’ll see all the benefits and elements of a healthy river – the logs, the gravel, all of those things making the river healthy again.”
But the river’s health is in the eye of the beholder.
“The good spawning that’s there is going to be ruined,” said Wayne Lease. Lease owns a home along Northwestern Lake. An avid fisherman, Lease believes the salmon and steelhead will lose their spawning gravel when the silt is released.
There is an estimated 2.4 million cubic yards of muddy silt behind the dam. Some of it has elevated levels of naturally occurring mercury in it. That material will go right downstream when PacifiCorp drills and 18x12 foot tunnel through the base of the dam.
“No doubt there will be a short-term impact when we breach the dam and the sediment gets moved downstream,” said Pacific Corp project manager Todd Olson.
But Olson said the company, environmental groups and even a growing number of fishermen now believe the river will clean itself out. Olson also says scientific studies have shown the mercury will be so diluted in the water it will not affect fish or wildlife.
He points to the Sandy River where sediment muddied the lower river after Marmot Dam came out three years ago. Spring runoff scoured the riverbed, and salmon and steelhead eventually returned to the river.
Still, the Sandy silt problem was one-third the size of the muddy mess behind Condit Dam.
American Rivers says the White Salmon will also clean itself with Mother Nature’s help.
“I venture to guess that we’ll see even healthier salmon and steelhead runs once we have a healthier river,” Kober said.
“When we do it, it’s going to fill the mouth of the river up within four feet of the surface in six hours,” Lease said.
His house is above the dam. He said he will be left with a home on a mile of mud instead of his current lake view.
“It’s not just living here; it’s a way of life. It’s like the animals that live here are going to have their way of life changed. The waterfowl, the fish and fauna, everything is going to change,” Lease said.
Lease and his 60 or so neighbors on the lake rent their land from Pacific Corp. Under its deal to remove the dam, PacifiCorp will spend a maximum of $32 million, including clean-up costs and re-planting natural vegetation.
If the dam stayed, they could have been forced by federal regulators to spend $100 million building fish ladders and making other improvements to the hydropower project.
“It’s better to take the dam out than it is to spend lots of money to put fish passages in and continue to operate,” Olson, the project manager, said. He said it makes economic sense for PacifiCorp customers.
Kober said the local economy will also see a boost.
“We’ll see amazing new recreation opportunities, the rapids that will be revealed,” she said. She said the river will become a white-water mecca that will make it a destination.
She thinks it could be much like the Columbia River Gorge is for windsurfers.
The losers in the deal will be Lease and his neighbors, who said their lives on the lake will be gone.
“They had an agreement with us,” Lease said. “We’re just peons. We’re sixty-some people, we’re just peons.”
PacifiCorp and American Rivers tell KATU they believe Lease and his neighbors will enjoy the new landscape around their homes after the dam is removed, vegetation is restored and wild salmon and steelhead return to the upper White Salmon River.