It's looking increasingly likely that Condit Dam will be decommissioned and removed in 2011.
Last week, the Washington Department of Ecology (WDOE) issued the "Section 401 Water Quality Certification" to PacifiCorp Energy, the Portland-based utility company that owns the dam.
The Water Quality Certification was a major hurdle for PacifiCorp, and its issuance now allows PacifiCorp to move forward with obtaining the final permits necessary to remove the dam.
Joye Redfield-Wilder, public information officer for the WDOE, said the permit means the state has now essentially signed off on PacifiCorp's plans to take out the dam.
"This was the final authorization from Ecology that the company needed for FERC and the Corps to issue their decision," said Redfield-Wilder. "The project also will need a construction stormwater permit from Ecology at the time of `deconstruction.' This will cover how they will address any potential stormwater runoff that could occur. The company may also need to get local/county permits, and may need a permit to `work in the water.'"
Last week's action by the WDOE follows a multi-year process to evaluate environmental risks associated with removing the dam, which straddles Klickitat and Skamania counties.
Condit Dam, a 125 foot tall hydro-electric dam on the White Salmon River, is located about three miles upstream from the confluence with the Columbia River.
Under a multi-party settlement agreement signed in 1999, PacifiCorp agreed to remove the 1913-era dam instead of renewing its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) operating license. License renewal would have required highly expensive fish passage facilities.
Originally, the dam was scheduled to be decommissioned in 2006. In 2005, PacifiCorp asked for an extension until 2008. Now, after delays in the permitting process, PacifiCorp plans to begin taking down the dam in October 2011.
"PacifiCorp has targeted the fall of 2011 to accomplish dam removal, and to the best of our knowledge they are on track to meet that deadline," Redfield-Wilder said.
Before receiving FERC approval to remove the dam, PacifiCorp Energy needed to obtain certification from the state that water quality standards and other water-protection regulations were met during dam removal and subsequent habitat restoration. The certification -- required under the federal Clean Water Act -- outlines the steps PacifiCorp must take to protect water quality.
Citing ongoing negotiations, county officials were reluctant to discuss the overall process.
"Because the county is still in negotiations with PacifiCorp, my comments must necessarily be circumspect," said Klickitat County Commissioner Rex Johnston. "I can say that the county is still in negotiations and that our concerns are still the same. We want PacifiCorp to be responsible for any and all cleanup, and not be limited by a (financial) cap. We do not want the county to be left with an expensive mess to clean up."
Johnston said there are still several permits -- from the county as well as from the federal government -- PacifiCorp needs before it can remove the dam.
"I believe the Army Corps of Engineers must weigh in on this issue at some point as well," Johnston added.
According to fisheries experts, elimination of the dam and the old cofferdams within the river bed will provide Lower Columbia River chinook salmon with free and unrestricted access to about 14 miles of historic habitat. Steelhead will regain free and unrestricted access to another 33 miles.
"The effort to restore the White Salmon River is in the home stretch," said Friends of the White Salmon River President Pat Arnold, a Trout Lake resident. "This permit is not the final step before dam removal, but it is a major step forward, and it gives us great hope that next year, anadromous fish and Pacific lamprey will be making their home in the river for the first time in almost a century."
Biologists anticipate annual returns of about 800 steelhead and up to 8,000 salmon.
Redfield-Wilder added that the Water Quality Certification took a long time because there were many issues to sift through.
"During our environmental evaluation of the effects dam removal would have on water quality, a number of issues arose. The certification spells out the actions the company would need to take to lessen those impacts and to address habitat restoration after the dam is removed," she explained.
According to WDOE officials, one of the chief concerns was that elevated levels of mercury existed in parts of Northwestern Lake, the reservoir behind the dam.
"As part of the State Environmental Policy Act review, Ecology conducted an environmental impact statement to learn more about and address those concerns, among a few other things," Redfield-Wilder said. "The goal was to have a project in place that is environmentally sound and meets the objectives for providing salmon and steelhead unrestricted access to the White Salmon River."
The process of breaching the dam calls for cutting a narrow tunnel into the dam's base, then blasting the final few feet of concrete. At that point, engineers say the reservoir will drain within six hours. The bulk of the dam will then be cut up and removed for disposal or recycling.
Johnston pointed out that the controversy that once swirled around decommissioning of the dam has cooled off.
"I personally have not been lobbied by either side on the dam removal issue in quite some time," Johnston explained. "The same parties have the same concerns and desires, I am sure. I think they are just waiting to see what happens."
Signatories to the original agreement to remove the dam included the following agencies and organizations: Washington Department of Ecology; Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission; Yakama Indian Nation; American Rivers; American Whitewater Affiliation; Columbia Gorge Audubon Society; Columbia Gorge Coalition; Friends of the Columbia River; Columbia River United Federation of Fly Fishers; Friends of the Earth; Mountaineers; Rivers Council of Washington; Sierra Club; Trout Unlimited; Washington Trout; Washington Wilderness Coalition; U.S. Forest Service; U.S. Department of the Interior; and the National Marine Fisheries Service.