White Salmon River, Washington

In 2011, the massive 125-foot tall Condit Dam was removed from the waters of the White Salmon River. After more than one hundred years, the river came back to life as fish regained access to 18 miles of upstream habitat and spawning grounds, ecosystems flourished, and people flocked to boat and fish on the newly free- flowing river.

The Story

Face of Condit Dam prior to removal | Photo by Taylor Goforth, USFW,
Face of Condit Dam prior to removal | Photo by
Taylor Goforth, USFW

Originating from the slopes of Mount Adams in Washington, the White Salmon River runs 44 miles south until it merges with the Columbia River. In 1913, the massive Condit Dam was constructed on the White Salmon three miles upstream from its confluence with the Columbia. The 125-foot tall and 90-foot thick Condit Dam spanned the entire width of the river, drastically altering the natural functions of the river and surrounding ecosystems.

Condit Dam was originally constructed by Pacific Power and Light, or PacifiCorp (formerly Northwestern Electric Company), to provide electricity to Crown Willamette Paper Company and the surrounding area. After multiple failed attempts to install fish passage that could withstand flooding, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued an Environmental Impact Statement in 1996 that required PacifiCorp to install state-of-the-art fish passage.

Years of uncertainty about the dam’s future followed until the Condit Hydroelectric Project Settlement Agreement was reached in 1999. The settlement was negotiated by 23 parties, including the Yakama Indian Nation, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, PacifiCorp, American Rivers and 15 other organizations. The involved parties determined that shutting down the powerhouse and removing the dam would be more cost-effective than constructing the state–of-the-art fish ladder and maintaining the structures. The parties also determined that removal of the dam would give the river the opportunity to return to a more natural state after more than 100 years.

Upstream of Condit Dam
Upstream of Condit Dam approximately an hour
after breaching took place. Most of the water that had
been held behind the dam had drained out but the
sediment continued to shift as the river found its
historical channel. Over time vegetation stabilized the
banks and the water became clear after the sediment
finally settled out. Photo by Zachary Collier

Ten years later plans had been made, designs drawn, permits obtained and FERC had issued a surrender order for the prompt removal of Condit Dam. Following the order, no time was wasted, and in June 2011 work on structurally removing the dam began. Due to Condit’s massive size, the removal process was dissimilar to more common small dam removal projects. On the upstream side of the dam was a large reservoir impounding at least 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment and a significant volume of water. In order to allow the reservoir to safely drain before the removal of the entire structure, 3,000 pounds of explosives blasted an 18-foot wide by 13-foot tall hole at the dam’s base. Moments before the explosion, a horn sounded, and suddenly the water behind the dam came roaring out of the gaping hole. The spewing dark, murky waters illustrated the years of sediment buildup behind the structure.

Within two hours of the blast, the reservoir had been completely drained, but the sediment continued to shift long after that as the hydrology and morphology of the river returned to a more natural state. After breaching the dam in October 2011, it took almost one full year to physically remove the pieces of chipped away concrete from the site. In addition to the dam’s removal, new bridge piers were constructed, and the city of Salmon’s waterline was relocated. The powerhouse still remains at the site where Condit once stood.

Dam Removal Benefits

  • Chinook and coho salmon, steelhead, lamprey and other species of migratory and resident fish now have access to 18 miles of previously inaccessible habitat
  • Yakama and other native tribes are able to fish once again in historic areas, something that has not been possible upstream from the dam site for more than 100 years
  • PacifiCorp partnered with the Yakama tribe to restore a 2.8 acre plot with native and culturally significant plant species
  • 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment naturally settled out, forming a delta at the confluence of the White Salmon and Columbia rivers
  • Muddy banks that had formerly been covered by water in the reservoir were planted with native species to reduce erosion of the newly formed river bank  
  • The free-flowing river is now a destination spot for whitewater kayakers and boaters to come paddle the entire stretch of the White Salmon, and recreational fishers are frequently spotted casting a line
  • PacifiCorp worked closely with the community and stakeholders months and years after removal to ensure successful restoration of the river system
Removal of Condit Dam | Photo by Northwest Power and Conservation Council
Removal of Condit Dam | Photo by Northwest Power and Conservation Council

The dedication of PacifiCorp to restore the White Salmon River and the help of the many partners involved was key in the successful removal of Condit Dam and the restoration of the White Salmon River. The unimpeded river is now free flowing and full of life.

Amy Kober | American Rivers | akober@americanrivers.org