By JESSE BURKHARDT
It looks like PacifiCorp, the owner of Condit Dam, is going to have its Christmas wish granted.
In an 83-page order issued on Dec. 16, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled that Condit Dam on the White Salmon River can be removed.
The order from FERC specifies that removal can begin as of October 2011.
"We find that surrender with the removal of the dam and other project property except for the powerhouse is appropriate," read an excerpt from the conclusion of the lengthy determination from FERC. "We conclude, based on the record of this case, that the benefits of dam removal to anadromous fish, wildlife, and white-water recreation outweigh the costs associated with the loss of Condit Dam and Northwestern Lake ... we will modify the schedule and require that PacifiCorp commence facility removal after Oct. 1, 2011, and complete all in-water work by Aug. 31, 2012."
Condit Dam, a hydro-electric facility built in 1913, is located on the White Salmon River, 3.3 miles north from where it flows into the Columbia River. The dam's structure is 471 feet long and 125 feet high, with the maximum electrical output of the dam rated at 14.7 megawatts.
PacifiCorp has been engaged in relicensing efforts for the aging dam since December 1991. Due to the high cost of providing for fish passage around the dam, PacifiCorp made a decision in 1999 to instead decommission the dam. FERC's ruling is essentially the culmination of that long process.
In October 1999, PacifiCorp entered into a "settlement agreement" -- that called for dam removal -- with a number of interested parties as well as federal and state agencies.
Originally, the dam was slated to come out in 2006, but that initial date was pushed back to 2008 and then to 2011 as PacifiCorp dealt with numerous legal, technical, permitting, and environmental issues related to the proposed dam removal process.
FERC's Dec. 16 ruling accelerates recent momentum clearing the way for removal of the dam. In October, key agencies of the state of Washington gave their final approval for the project. Then, in November, Klickitat County and Skamania County officials also announced that they had resolved their outstanding issues related to taking out the dam with PacifiCorp.
"In the end, it's PacifiCorp's dam, and if they want to remove it, that's their business," explained Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter after the agreement with PacifiCorp was announced in early November. "Our concerns were met, and there is no reason for us to stand in the way."
Fisheries biologists believe that with Condit Dam gone, 33 more miles of habitat for steelhead and 14 more miles of habitat for Chinook salmon will be restored.
Representatives from river conservation, recreation, wildlife, and fishing communities were joyous upon seeing the FERC order.
"Just in time for the holidays, the people of the Pacific Northwest are getting an amazing gift -- the promise of a healthy, free-flowing White Salmon River," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, a conservation organization based in Washington, D.C. "A healthy White Salmon River has far more value for the local community and region as a whole than this outdated dam."
"The rivers of the Columbia River Gorge represent some of the nation's most outstanding white-water resources, and at the heart of the Gorge the White Salmon River is known worldwide for its scenic beauty and high quality white-water," added Thomas O'Keefe of Seattle-based organization American Whitewater.
Pat Arnold, a Trout Lake resident and president of Friends of the White Salmon River, said she was happy to see FERC's ruling but remained cautious.
"I am certainly pleased that FERC has issued the surrender order that allows removal of Condit Dam," Arnold explained. "But I am also aware that there are still steps to be taken before the dam is actually removed, so am still somewhat in a holding pattern."
Arnold added that she believes helping to restore the fish population in the river could have a beneficial impact on the overall community as well.
"Dam removal will allow restoration of fish species which have been part of this watershed for thousands of years, and restoration will strengthen the natural world which sustains us all," she said. "At the same time, as I imagine the river without the dam, it's clear that we face challenges to balance the needs of all sorts of human activities with habitat restoration. My hope is that restoration includes restoration of the will to work together as a community to meet those challenges."
Under the proposed project removal, PacifiCorp would demolish and remove Condit Dam and all other project facilities except the powerhouse, which has historical significance. Demolition and removal activities would be expected to take about one year.
According to the FERC order, dam removal would be accomplished as follows: a 12 foot high by 18 foot wide low-level drain tunnel would be excavated through the concrete base of the dam from the downstream side. Concrete excavated from the tunnel would be transported to a spoils area, and an access road would be constructed to the existing spillway apron deck.
"The final 15 feet of the tunnel would be drilled and blasted, allowing the reservoir and impounded sediments to be sluiced through the tunnel, and lowering the reservoir to stream level in about six hours," read a portion of the document. "Prior to this final tunnel blast, a barge-mounted crane would be floated in front of the dam to excavate sediment and debris from the area in front of the projected tunnel hole-through. When the area has been sufficiently cleaned out, the crane and barge would be removed from the reservoir and the final tunnel blast would be detonated to drain the reservoir."
When it is removed, Northwestern Lake -- the 92-acre reservoir that formed behind the dam -- will drain into the Columbia River.
One of the key side issues related to the dam's decommissioning concerned the bridge that crosses the White Salmon River and leads to the Northwestern Lake area.
FERC addressed this issue specifically and in great detail in its ruling last week: "Because the removal of Condit Dam and the draining of the reservoir could have an adverse impact on the stability of Northwestern Lake Bridge, we are conditioning the surrender on PacifiCorp's implementation of measures to protect Northwestern Lake Bridge from the effects of dam removal and the resulting changed river conditions," read an excerpt of the order. "Although we have not yet been presented with the entire, detailed proposal for the Bridge Stabilization Project, because the bridge is owned by Klickitat County, it would be sufficient, for purposes of our review and approval of this portion of the project removal plan, that PacifiCorp's stabilization measures meet the specifications of the Klickitat County Department of Public Works, Office of the County Engineer."
The full list of the agencies and organizations signing the 1999 settlement agreement that started the dam decommissioning process in earnest includes PacifiCorp, American Rivers, American Whitewater Affiliation, Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, Columbia Gorge Coalition, Columbia River United, Federation of Fly Fishers, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Friends of the Earth, The Sierra Club, Rivers Council of Washington, The Mountaineers, Trout Unlimited, Washington Trout, Washington Wilderness Coalition, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Yakama Nation, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Marine Fisheries Service, Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and Friends of the White Salmon River.