White Salmon River set free

The White Salmon River in southern Washington state was set free on Wednesday, Oct. 26, when a hole was blasted in the 12-story-tall Condit dam, and Northwestern Lake drained in about an hour.

It was an act that will return the White Salmon to its free-flowing state, restore salmon habitat and provide a model for how river restoration will unfold in the future.

“It was phenomenal to watch it go from a fairly silted-in reservoir down to a river in an hour,” said Idaho Rivers United Policy Director Kevin Lewis, who watched Wednesday’s events unfold on a monitor in Husum, a few miles upstream of the dam site. “This was a milestone in river restoration efforts throughout the country.”

Lewis said that in Idaho there are things we can learn from the Condit dam removal and additional removals on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. They can teach us about the science, engineering, economic and community-related lessons that can be applied to other rivers—rivers like the lower Snake.

“When a football stadium is obsolete, we blow it up,” Lewis said. “When a highway overpass is obsolete, we blow it up. And when a dam is obsolete, we should blow it up.”

For Idaho’s salmon, the science is clear: the four low-value, high-cost dams on the lower Snake River are the most significant impediments to survival. Following a strong court ruling on Aug. 2 from federal District Judge James Redden that called for the federal government to look more closely at dam removal as an option for recovering upper Snake River basin salmon, Lewis said it’s time to begin a collaborative process to find lasting solutions.

“Condit produced somewhere between 7 and 9 megawatts of power, but its environmental impact was staggering,” he said. “It was time to get rid of it, and they did.”

Likewise, the lower Snake River dams produce about 2 to 4 percent of the region’s electricity. Particularly compared with what they cost Idaho’s endangered salmon and the billions poured into fixes that haven’t worked, this benefit is negligible and easily replaceable.

But the federal government continues to try to buck a federal judge’s demands that more be done for Idaho’s salmon on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. On Aug. 2, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden told federal agencies that their existing salmon plan was illegal under the Endangered Species Act.

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, Idaho Rivers United and other conservation groups filed in federal court asking Judge Redden to make sure the agencies take actions needed to protect salmon and steelhead.

“The judge told the agencies they were off track with their last salmon plan, but everything they’re saying seems to suggest the judge’s ruling somehow didn’t register,” Lewis said.

The filing seeks appointment of a settlement judge to work with plaintiffs and defendants to agree on an approach to the revised plan, which is due by 2014. Second, the filing requests an independent scientific review process to evaluate what, if any, progress has been made since the current plan was implemented.

“There’s cause for celebration on the White Salmon River this week, but the momentum we’ve earned there toward freeing a river and restoring salmon can and should be taken forward to turning the Snake River into a similar and broadly-supported success story.”