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Wild and scenic White Salmon River even more spectacular

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Kayakers can enjoy more white-water paddling on the White Salmon River north of Hood River since the Condit Dam was removed.HUSUM, Wash. — Just before the October rains started, three female salmon hovered over their nests in the White Salmon River, guarding them fiercely.

That in itself wasn’t uncommon. It was the location of the nests — called “reds” — that a group of environmental activists stood marveling over.

“We’re standing 50 feet away from salmon spawning above the dam upriver in the White Salmon River,” says Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper. “This is a success story.”

Until last fall, the passage of salmon and steelhead on the scenic river had been blocked by the Condit Dam for 99 years.

The hydroelectric dam, just over the Washington border about eight miles north of Hood River, had created a 92-acre reservoir about a mile upstream known as Northwestern Lake. 

While many enjoyed the placid lake, river advocates and whitewater enthusiasts — as well as tribal members and other visitors — are ecstatic to see the river flow freely in its natural state since the dam was breached a year ago.

“It’s a little less quiet, but this is good for the river,” says Phil Geffner, owner of Northwest Portland’s Escape From New York Pizza, who’s spent the past decade kayaking on the White Salmon River three days a week as a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

“The river’s regenerating itself,” he says after seeing salmon upstream, packing his gear for the 75-minute drive home to Portland. “It’s a good thing for everyone.” 

The dismantling of Condit Dam was a long-fought legal battle, fraught with years of delays and logistical and political challenges. The breach was the largest at any man-made dam in the country— though a larger one on the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula has begun. 

The magnitude of the project brings a world of unknowns. 

“There still are challenges,” says Sally Newell, vice chairwoman of the advocacy group Friends of White Salmon River. “The challenges are social. There will be conflicts.” 

One of the unresolved issues is how the land around the former lake will be used. 

Advocacy groups are in litigation with Klickitat County over a zoning change that would allow higher-density residential development along that stretch of river. 

“Trying to cram a bunch of new dense development along this river is inconsistent with salmon restoration,” VandenHeuvel says. 

PacifiCorp, the longtime owner of the land, has no plan to sell it at this time, according to Tom Gauntt, the Portland-based utility’s spokesman. 

“We do have a stipulation with the counties that if we sell it, the buyer will need to keep it a park for 10 years after,” he says. “The idea is to allow time for any local agencies with an interest to work out a deal with the buyer.” 

Riverfront cabin owner Al Greenwood, who bought his place on land leased from

PacifiCorp six years ago, resides just a stone’s throw from the water.

Going forward, his big concern is how public access at the park will be managed. Friends of the White Salmon River has organized a stakeholder group to involve all parties. They say there’s a great need for public access along the river, which is federally designated as wild and scenic. 

In the meantime, visitors to the park will see a new interpretive sign, installed by PacifiCorp in late October, detailing the project history and the area’s history before white settlement. The river had been part of the Yakama Nation’s traditional territory, ceded to the U.S. government in 1855. 

The site is also Ground Zero for salmon-lovers. “The (Columbia River) gorge has been the epicenter for dam removal and salmon restoration in the country,” says VandenHeuvel, who helped lead the legal battle that stretched several years. “We have salmon imagery everywhere; it’s so much a part of our culture. Here it is, on the ground level. They’re gaining access to their homeland.”

Recovering threatened species  

Perhaps no one’s been watching the restoration of the White Salmon River more closely than Rod Engle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist charged with monitoring that area. 

He’s been looking for lower Columbia River fall chinook (commonly known as Thule), listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. 

“Fish are spawning where they used to spawn,” Engle says. “That’s a good sign. If it was unusable, the fish would pass it. They are also spawning upriver in the former reservoir too. It’s extremely satisfying to know they could use this habitat and they are using it.”

In all, the dam’s removal opened 33 miles of new spawning and rearing grounds for steelhead and 14 miles for salmon in the river’s basin. In summer 2011, fish biologists moved at least 500 salmon upstream of the dam, which spawned in their new habitat in the fall and then descended the river unimpeded by the dam.

“Right now,” Engle says, “any new really positive outcomes with fish gets us further along with recovering them and getting them off the ESA.”

Spotting a red in the water is relatively easy, he says. “The river had the whole summer to have sunlight on it. The rocks darken up with algae growth. When the fish come in the fall, they start to turn the rocks. So you look for the contrast. An area where there’s intense spawning is like carpet bombing, with big contrasts of light and dark.” 

Land in transition

Visitors to Northwestern Park this fall will find a tree stump-dotted landscape, though grass will sprout by spring and community members will be able to help plant native vegetation.

The river had been open for state sport fishing until late October; new regulations come out Jan. 1. 

On Nov. 5, PacifiCorp lifted access restrictions to the river rapids downstream of Northwestern Park, for the first time since the dam’s breach. The dynamite blast had punched a hole in the 125-foot high, 471-foot long concrete dam, sending 30,000 cubic yards of material into the river to be removed.

Among the debris were old-growth logs that had been in the reservoir bed, which rose to the surface, floated downriver and became cemented in with the slurry in unnatural positions, creating a hazard.

Crews had been working since Oct. 2011 to remove the logjam, and whitewater adventurers had been waiting with bated breath for its reopening. Some restrictions still remain.

Part of what river rats are most excited about is a half-mile stretch just downstream of the former dam known as “the narrows.” 

“It’s stunning, very beautiful,” says Jaco Klinkenberg, co-owner of Wet Planet, a whitewater outfitter based downriver in the town of White Salmon, Wash. 

She’s only been in that section of river once, when she was hired to escort the project contractor through just after the breach. 

“When you float the spot where the dam used to be, there’s no trace,” she says. “You’re floating through sheer cliff walls that are super narrow — you can stretch your arms out and almost touch the sides.” 

Once the logjam is removed, experienced kayakers may be able to take the plunge, since the season goes year-round. 

Rafting season starts up again in April, as the weather improves. Klinkenberg expects to see a lot of interest in the new, free-flowing White Salmon River — already a national hotspot for whitewater activity. 

Northwestern Park also has become a real-life learning laboratory for students. Students from eight local schools visited the dam last spring and fall as part of a grant-funded White Salmon River Experiential Learning Project, co-managed by groups including the Yakama Nations Fisheries, which represents 14 native groups. 

The students learned the history of dam removal — everything from the cultural issues to lessons in engineering, hydrology and fisheries. 

This fall, classes will return to the site to get their first look at the free-flowing river and the beginning of the restoration process. 

Jeanette Burkhardt, watershed planner for Yakama Nation Fisheries, also launched a river users’ education and outreach campaign.

“We all need the water and hope to derive something from the river peacefully and without impacting the resource,” she says. “Things are definitely not status quo anymore.” 

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