Last week NOAA Fisheries released their Biological Opinion on the Condit Dam removal (read full document). This document represents one of the critical final steps in the dam removal process. Fishery biologists have now confirmed the conclusion that removing the dam will represent a significant benefit for salmon populations that utilize this river. Salmon will be able to further expand their range with access to high quality habitat and the cold, clean water the White Salmon River provides.
NOAA concluded that impacts of the dam "have reduced the abundance, population growth rate, spatial structure, and diversity" of salmon species that utilize the White Salmon River and removing the dam "would likely substantially improve conditions for Chinook salmon and steelhead relative to the past operational and existence effects of the Project, which have contributed to the degraded current status of these species." NOAA noted that hydroelectric development in the Columbia River Basin and its tributaries has had major negative impacts on these populations. Failure to remove the dam would result in long-term decline and likely extinction, and NOAA stated that "measures must be taken with the action area to minimize ongoing impacts".
Specific benefits of dam removal include opening up access to 33 miles of habitat, restoring natural river processes to the White Salmon River, and lowering of water temperature to prevent thermal stress in the reach downstream of the dam.
NOAA provided a favorable evaluation of the dam removal plan where reservoir sediments will be quickly flushed from the reservoir over a period of approximately 6 hours minimizing long-term impacts. Fish will have access to upstream habitat within the year and the lower 3 miles of spawning habitat is anticipated to be functional within 2 years following removal.
The impacts of the removal on Chinook salmon and steelhead were specifically evaluated as these are the two species that currently spawn in the lower White Salmon. NOAA determined that native steelhead have been extirpated from the White Salmon and those currently found in the river are strays. Recovery of the species could be achieved however by removing the dam and providing access to habitat currently available upstream. The majority of Chinook currently spawning in the river are probably hatchery strays, but some portion of these fish were established from the original White Salmon population prior to dam construction. NOAA concluded that a salvage plan to collect adult spawners in the river prior to dam removal will effectively preserve the next generation.
Citing PacifiCorp's commitment to resource stewardship following dam removal, NOAA also provided a favorable evaluation of PacifiCorp's revegetation plan. The revegetation plan will establish "sustainable plant communities capable of providing ecological services and promoting watershed health" that will "benefit steelhead and Chinook salmon". NOAA also determined that the plan will "enlarge the acreage and enhance the value of wetlands available to fish", as the removal will eliminate small wetland areas dominated by exotic invasives.
American Whitewater is a signatory to the settlement agreement for Condit Dam removal. We are now one step closer to removal of the dam in fall 2008 and restoration of the White Salmon River for the benefit of fish, wildlife, people who enjoy this great river.
Photo: Narrows of the White Salmon below Condit Dam.