What Idaho can learn from Washington dam removal

Condit Dam

By Steve Guild, IRU Summer Intern

In southeastern Washington four dams on the lower Snake River have all but extirpated anadromous fish from the most prolific salmon fishery in the lower 48. Those dams still kill the majority of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead even though it’s clear their removal would restore the runs.

There are myths, however, that surround the removal of dams.

  1. Removing dams comes with excessive costs.
  2. There is difficulty replacing power when a dam is removed.
  3. All dams provide flood protection.

To understand the impacts dam removal and what it means for wild fish recovery there are excellent examples of contemporary dam removals that help debunk the myths.

For 98 years the 125-foot Condit Dam completely blocked fish from the upper sections of the White Salmon River and its tributaries. Construction of Condit Dam began in 1912 and when completed the 15MW of energy it produced was more then enough to power the paper mill which required only 3MW.  Wooden fish ladders were included in the original dam construction but they failed by 1917 and were not replaced.

In 1996 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued its final Environmental Impact Statement on Condit Dam. If the dam’s owner, PacifiCorp, wanted to continue running Condit Dam the company would be required to build permanent fish passage facilities. In 1997 PacifiCorp asked FERC reverse its decision to require fish passage in order to run the dam. FERC denied the request, and that forced PacifiCorp to take a harder look at the numbers. Simple economics motivated the company to remove Condit Dam, opening salmon spawning habitat that had been closed off since 1917.

“The cost of building the required fish passage facilities would have been $30 million. Therefore the relicensing of the dam was uneconomical,” write Michael C. Blumm and Andrew B. Erickson in an Environmental Law article titled, Dam Removal in the Pacific Northwest. “Instead PacifiCorp entered into a settlement agreement with several groups which capped the removal costs at $17.15 million. On October 26, 2011 Condit Dam was breached.” For just over half the projected cost of adding fish passages to the dam, Condit was removed.

This debunks myth one, the notion that dam removal comes with excessive costs. Moreover, the 15 megawatts of electricity the dam once produced was easily replaced by new and higher capacity generation equipment–myth two debunked as well.

While some dams in the Columbia Basin  provide flood protection a vast majority were built for either transportation or electricity generation. Condit’s removal, in fact, alleviated flood risk by restoring a natural braided river system that gives direction to higher flows and mitigates flood risks naturally–myth three debunked.

Condit’s removal not only proved a common-sense measure that made economic sense, it made salmon recovery possible. Just one year after its removal salmon returned to the headwaters of the White Salmon River. The recovery was swift and unaided. In the first year, 85 percent of the fish upstream of the dam site were wild. Only two years after dam removal 93 percent of returning salmon fish were wild. If this type of fish recovery is possible after total extirpation imagine the impact removing the lower four Snake River dams could have for Idaho, where a small percentage of wild fish still make it home every year.

The natural flow of the Lower Snake River has been altered significantly by the four lower Snake River dams. Built to create an ocean port at the city of Lewiston, Idaho, the dams slowed the river and increased its depth for barge traffic. This comes with a number of negative effects.

Slowing the river causes water to warm more than it would in a natural flow regime. Warmer water has lower available oxygen content then cold water, and studies have shown that warm water also speeds the metabolism of returning fish. The combination of increased metabolic activity with lower available oxygen is often fatal for fish. For salmon returning to Idaho the maximum tolerable temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  Fish that are able to make it back to their headwaters in spite of these odds have a lower fitness level, which means fewer and less productive salmon spawning nests, called redds.

Because the four lower Snake River dams are run-of-river dams they provide minimal power production but cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year. When asked how much power the dams produce, federal agencies offer their total nameplate potential, but for generators to produce at full capacity a deep reservoir and gravity-pressurized system would be required. These run-of-river dams do not provide the necessary conditions for power production–particularly in the summer and winter when flows are low and electricity demand is high.

The bottom line is that the net benefit of the dams is less than zero. According to IRU member and Kooskia, Idaho, resident Linwood Laughy, the 20-year cost of maintaining the shipping channel in the Lewiston area alone is just under $100 million. This does not include the $34 million the Bonneville Power Administration reports it spends on maintenance of the four dams every year.

Contrast this exorbitant expense with the potential of restored runs of wild salmon and steelhead. According to a 2005 study by Ben Johnson and Associates, removing the four lower Snake River dams and restoring salmon would generate a net income of $544 million dollars a year in sport fishing–most of it in rural Idaho towns like Riggins, Stanley and Salmon.

Condit shows it’s possible, and the numbers show it’s probable–not an issue of if, but when. Let’s hope Idaho’s endangered salmon and steelhead are still around when the four salmon-killing dams on the lower Snake River are removed.

Sediment tells the story of a healing ecosystem

Lonesome Larry visits Elwha River

Larry at the Former Elwha Dam Site. Photo by Joanna Guild.

Part 2 of a two-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

By Steve Guild, IRU Summer Intern

Water at the mouth of the Elwha River is clouded with sediment that makes it impossible to see the riverbed. In this river, long plugged by two large dams, this is fantastic progress.

For over a century anadromous fish have been unable to return to their native headwaters. Cloudy water at the river’s mouth is a sign that the natural system is coming back to life.

To understand the impacts dam removal has on native salmon, I work up-river. This age old path has been followed by salmon entering ecosystems to spawn for millennia.

West of Port Angeles salmon enter the Elwha River from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From its mouth the river stretches 40 miles up and into the Olympic Mountains. The Elwha River itself starts at a permanent snowfield known as the Elwha snow finger. The upper tributaries of the river originate in the heart of the Olympic Mountains, with the main stem draining the southeast slopes of Mount Olympus (Humes Glacier). Once completely freed later this year, there will be 75 miles of historic spawning habitat open to anadromous fishes for the first time in a century.

Elwha Dam, the lower of the two, blocked passage of fish attempting to travel upriver to spawn in the Elwha River’s headwaters since 1910. For the first time in more than a century, returning salmon are not trapped in a pool at the base of Elwha Dam. Returning fish now have access to 8.6 more miles of their historic habitat until they are stopped at the base of Glines Canyon Dam, which is 75 percent removed.

Sediment long trapped by the dams, however, is clogging systems meant to handle any amount of debris the Elwha could pass along. Unfortunately officials underestimated the amount of sediment delivered by the river in the early 1900s. The original estimated buildup behind the two Elwha dams was 15.3 million cubic yards, a number updated a few years ago to 24 million cubic yards. This past year the number was bumped even higher, to 36 million cubic yards. The amount of in-river debris is greater than the capacity of water treatment systems at Port Angeles to handle. Despite the latest and greatest in engineering technology we are only now beginning to understand the true negative impacts dams have inflicted on the local ecosystem.

Impacts of sediment in the water go beyond municipal water treatment issues. Sediment can also be fatal to salmon. Knowing this could be an issue for returning fish, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration drafted the Elwha River Fish Restoration Plan, a blueprint for native salmon recovery to be implemented in tandem with dam removal. In accordance to the plan native fish stocks have been trapped and transported both above the Glines Canyon Dam and to specially designated hatcheries. These hatcheries will raise wild stocks to be released with their adipose fins intact to ensure the future of the river’s wild fish stock.

While the lower Elwha is cloudy with troublesome, though temporary, sediment, the upper river above Glines Canyon Dam is clear. To observe this I traveled around Glines Canyon Dam and returned to the river on a trail opened to the public at upper Lake Mills–the reservoir created by the dam. As I drank in my surroundings I was astonished by the stark contrast in the landscape. From gravel bars above the former lake I was able to see sediment that had built up behind Glines Canyon Dam. But looking into the river I could see clear glacial water tainted only by glacial sediment.

This dam removal is significant in that the Elwha was not freed by captains of industry, but in spite of them. It was the voice of a people begging for a healthy ecosystem that provided momentum to the movement that is bringing down unneeded and costly dams in every corner of the United States.

The Elwha dam removals are an illustration of what is possible and give me hope that the voice of the people will be heard again in the Columbia River Basin, where four dams on the lower Snake River continue to kill the majority of Idaho’s salmon. Removal of these monolithic impediments will give future anadromous fish a better chance at survival, will return fishing jobs to rural communities and will help restore balance to the ecosystem.

The History and Importance of the Elwha River

Lonesome Larry Elwha River Delta

Lonesome Larry stands at the Elwha River delta, where the sediments from the newly freed Elwha River arehard at work restoring the delta. Photo by Joanna Guild.

Part 1 in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 2.

By Steve Guild, IRU Summer Intern

Lonesome Larry Elwha River

Lonesome Larry looks upstream toward the Elwha River’s origins.

In September 2011 more than 100 people gathered on the bank of the Elwha River to celebrate the largest dam removal project in history. Both the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams would be removed to make way for migrating salmon and steelhead.

Now, two years later, one of the dams is gone and the other 75 percent removed, and the salmon have responded. Migrating salmon began passing the old site of Elwha dam almost immediately upon its removal.

This week, Lonesome Larry is traveling to the Olympic Peninsula to gather a first-fish account of what happened on the Elwha River and how lessons learned there can be applied to the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state where the science is clear—four dams there are the most significant impediment to the survival of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead.

Following federal district Judge James Redden’s August 2011 rejection of the latest federal salmon recovery plan for Idaho fish, it’s time to bring key salmon players together to begin a collaborative process that finds lasting solutions to this decades-old problem.

The Elwha

As in the upper Snake River basin in Idaho, the Elwha River Basin on the Olympic Peninsula has been home to salmon and steelhead for thousands of years. These fish support the ecosystem by providing nutrients to water and soil. The soil and water grow plants, which support a wide variety of animals both large and small. Each part of a healthy ecosystem supports the others, preventing overpopulation as well as removing the weak and sick. This was the natural life of the Elwha, in which salmon are the keystone species.

A keystone species is a plant or animal around which a whole ecosystem is built. Without the keystone species an entire ecosystem could collapse. As water runs out to the ocean it takes with it nutrients from the headwaters. Salmon nourish the system. Without salmon returning and dying to feed the river and surrounding land, the system would eventually weaken and support less and less life. A few studies centered on the Olympic Peninsula help illustrate the point.

In 1988 C. Jeff Cederholm highlighted the importance of salmon in research tracking the nutrients of 945 coho salmon. To do this Cederholm and his team placed coho carcasses along seven streams on the Olympic Peninsula. During their research they recorded 43 species of mammals and birds present and found that 51 percent of them fed on the coho carcasses.

Further research by Sarah Morley and Jeff Duda from 2004-2006 documented that in reaches of rivers accessible to salmon nitrogen levels were higher than in areas blocked by dams. Nitrogen is a fundamental building block in organic life, and its presence in the ecosystem signifies health.

In a seperate survey conducted in 2006-2008 Morley and her team placed salmon carcasses in side channels of rivers inaccessible to salmon and found that nitrogen levels in the surrounding plants and animals became elevated. These nitrogen levels remained significantly elevated for three months and were detectable in many levels of the food chain from algae and insects to juvenile fish. Areas in which the carcasses were placed had growth rates 300 percent higher than in areas only 600 feet upstream.

The Elwha’s ecosystem was put to the test in 1890 when Thomas Aldwell arrived in Port Angeles at the mouth of the Elwha. Aldwell had come with a singular focus on development to take advantage of the natural abundance of the area.

Like many towns of the era Port Angeles lacked electricity, limiting its potential for industrial growth. Aldwell knew that building a hydroelectric dam on the Elwha River would increase the prosperity of the town. The Elwha Dam worked. Energy brought in paper mills, ship yards, lumber mills and other forms of industry that in turn provided employment. Energy demand was so high that a second dam was built 8.6 miles upstream at Glines Canyon. But the dams quickly aged and were rapidly outdated. The benefits they provided were quickly overshadowed by the toll they inflicted on the Olympic Peninsula’s native wild salmon.

From the beginning there were people who doubted the dams’ viability. The bottom of Elwha Dam, for example, was not anchored into the ground. Rather, it was built on bedrock and was referred to by some as a “dam on roller-skates.” Before the reservoir was filled for the first time the bottom of the dam blew out from the pressure of water behind it. Even after being repaired Elwha Dam always leaked. While some removal advocacy groups rallied around Elwha Dam’s instability others rallied around the cause of anadromous fish. Even as pressure to remove the dams grew, dam owners and the government seemed to strengthen their resolve.

Crown Zellerbach Corporation, one of the owners of Elwha Dam, defended its existence in filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a license to run the dam.

“The dam and reservoir have become an integral part of the environment… and has very little direct or indirect detrimental effect on the ecology of the land, air, and water environment,” the company said in its FERC filing. For several years the status quo seemed inevitable.

In 1986 the Federal Power Act was amended to require that FERC give fish and wildlife protection, mitigation and enhancement equal consideration with economic need and power production when considering the viability of power projects.

Dam opposition groups saw an opportunity. If they could prove that there was significant damage created by the dams, perhaps they could work for their removal. Public interest groups began pressuring FERC to include a cost-benefit analysis within its next Environmental Impact Statement.

In 1991 FERC released the EIS for relicensing the two dams. The document included a cost-benefit analysis that clearly showed it would be cheaper to remove the dams than to alter them to adhere to the new environmental standards.

That was the beginning of the end for the Elwha dams. With distinct benefits to be gained by restoring the native anadromous fishery and the dams not pulling their own weight economically, the stage was set for dam removal.

Check in with Larry on Facebook for updates and photos from the Elwha River Basin.

Part 1 in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 2.

The Sunbeam story: salmon return when dams come down

Lonesome Larry at Sunbeam Dam

Lonesome Larry examines the blown-up ramparts of Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River.

By Steve Guild, IRU Summer Intern

Sunbeam Dam was built on the Salmon River near the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River in 1910 and effectively wiped out the native run of sockeye salmon to and from the Pacific Ocean. After providing power for one year the powerhouse was shut down, but the dam sat idle and continued to kill salmon until it was removed in 1934.

The mystery surrounding Sunbeam’s partial demolition has been perpetuated in modern myth and legend. In his book “Politics Western Style,” former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus spun such a yarn.

“A party or parties unknown ran a dynamite-laden raft into Sunbeam Dam,” Andrus writes. “The river again flowed freely and was repopulated by the salmon whose migration had been blocked.”

Author Steven Hawley, who published “Recovering a Lost River” in 2011, tells a similar story about angry miners blowing up the dam in the dark of night. Neither Andrus or Hawley invented these oft-told dramatic tales, but the true story may be much less exciting.

Gary Gadwa, a former Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation officer and Stanley-area history buff, has been working to set the record straight.

“Idaho Fish and Game did actually contract with local miners to blast out the Sunbeam Dam that was sitting right in the way of migrating salmon,” Gadwa said. “However, the 300 tons of concrete of Sunbeam Sam still sit across the river in its entirety as only the earthen works were successfully removed from the river.”

Populations of sockeye salmon rebounded immediately after the dam was breached.

“Sockeye runs approached 4,000 by the early 1950s,” said Gadwa, who explained that landlocked sockeye, called kokanee, may have shifted their natural life cycles to repopulate the decimated sockeye run. Sockeye that historically numbered in the hundreds of thousands began to rebound.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, four dams were erected on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state, and Idaho’s salmon began a dramatic downward trend that continues to threaten their very existence. In 1992 only one sockeye salmon, dubbed Lonesome Larry, returned to Idaho. Chinook salmon and steelhead have been similarly impacted.

“Hundreds of miles downstream, however, where the Salmon joins the Snake River, the fish must run a gauntlet of eight federal dams before they reach the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon,” Andrus writes.

This is a journey Idaho’s salmon must make twice in their lives, once as juveniles migrating to the ocean and again as adults returning to Idaho to spawn. The downstream journey in particular is lethal for Idaho fish.

Since sockeye salmon were listed as an endangered species in 1991, pressure on the four salmon-killing dams on the lower Snake River has mounted. The federal government, though, has failed to write a salmon recovery plan that is legal or biologically sound. In 2011, a federal court threw out the government’s fourth federal salmon plan for failing to do enough. The court ordered federal agencies to take a harder look at how the lower Snake River dams impact salmon survival.

“NOAA Fisheries shall produce a new biological opinion that reevaluates [proposed actions] in avoiding jeopardy, identifies reasonably specific mitigation plans for the life of the biological opinion, and considers whether more aggressive action, such as dam removal and/or additional flow augmentation and reservoir modifications are necessary to avoid jeopardy,” the court wrote.

Sunbeam Dam is not an exception or anomaly. When dams are removed, salmon return. For fishing families and fishing communities, salmon are integral parts of a strong local economy. Moreover, they are a source of cultural pride in a region where rivers and towns are named after salmon. They also fuel mountain ecosystems with nutrients derived from the ocean.

Idaho’s early residents understood these things, and it’s why they removed Sunbeam Dam. This is also what Idahoans have at stake today.

Informing the future with the past: dam removals benefit wild salmon

Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River near the Yankee Fork prior to its breaching in 1934. Source: USFG

Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River near the Yankee Fork prior to its breaching in 1934. (Photo courtesy Idaho Department of Fish and Game)

By Steve Guild, IRU Summer Intern

The Pacific Northwest is showing the nation that salmon return when dams are removed, a common-sense solution to an age-old problem.

In the past decade, more than a half-dozen dams have come down in the region. Fifty-foot-tall Marmot and 16-foot-tall Sandy dams were removed from the Sandy River in Oregon. On the Elwha River in Washington state, 106-foot-tall Elwha Dam is gone, and 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam is 75 percent removed. And 125-foot-tall Condit Dam was demolished on the White Salmon River in the Columbia River Gorge.

These modern-day dam removals might seem a remarkable step in a region where more than 400 dams have been erected, but we’ve been here before. Idaho began removing dams to recover salmon in 1934 and went on to take out two more dams that specifically benefited ailing runs of native salmon and steelhead in 1963 and 1973.

In each case, removal was far easier and painless than some predicted. And in each case, salmon returned to their historic spawning grounds rapidly. With Glines Canyon Dam, the Washington state dam removal that is not yet complete, salmon are expected to rebound as rapidly as with the other already-completed dam removals.

Biologists confirm the results. Following removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River on Oct. 6, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a study focusing on relocation of salmon upriver of the former dam site. The service’s study, published in 2013, reported that salmon returned with little assistance from hatcheries. In 2011, 85 percent of the returning run of fall chinook salmon were of natural origin while in 2012 93 percent were of natural origin.

When these projects were built roughly a century ago, little regard was given to their impacts on the ecosystem, and on salmon and steelhead in particular. Most of the dams completely wiped out salmon runs.

“When people in the region started talking about dam removal ,there were some who were worried about what would happen when sediments were released into the rivers, but those concerns proved to be unwarranted,” said IRU board member and avid Idaho fisherman Tom Stuart. “What we gained in return in the form of revitalized salmon and steelhead runs is something we certainly expected—though worth celebrating.”

Although the region has experienced so much success with removing outdated and unneeded dams, four of the biggest salmon killers are still intact. The four lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington state impede migration to and from the Pacific for fish born in Idaho—a 6,000-foot, 900-mile journey for some fish.

What’s more, the four dams on the lower Snake are of marginal benefit to society and require enormous taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies. They produce 2 percent, on average, of the region’s electricity. They provide a barging channel that must be maintained by expensive taxpayer-funded dredging activities.

Lin Laughy, a Kooskia, Idaho resident and IRU member, crunched numbers and determined the 20-year cost of maintaining the shipping channel in the lower Snake River alone would be $60 to $80 million if a current Army Corps of Engineers dredging proposal is implemented. Based on annual averages for barges arriving at the Port of Lewiston, the subsidy for each barge–which comes from federal and local taxes–would be $16,415. That price tag jumps to $21,525 per barge when the cost of a $16 million Corps study on the feasibility of dredging is incorporated into the estimate. The costs in the analysis do not include the maintenance and repair of locks at each dam.

The United State has built some 80,000 dams in its history, but for a myriad of reasons including actual costs and environmental costs we’re not building them anymore. We’ve removed nearly 800 aging and outdated dams in the past 20 years nationwide, and that number is expected to grow as more dams outlive their usefulness.

The dam removals of the past offer important lessons for residents of the Snake River watershed — including for Idahoans. For Idaho’s salmon, the science is clear: the four dams on the lower Snake River are the most significant impediment to survival.  Following a federal district court’s August 2011 rejection of the latest federal salmon recovery plan—the third such rejection—Idaho Rivers United believes it’s time to bring key regional players together to begin a collaborative process to find lasting solutions. Such a process would include conservationists, fishermen, tribes, power producers, barging and transportation interests, farmers, irrigators and the states. In December 2012 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initiated a process that could work toward that goal.

Called a stakeholder assessment, NOAA’s effort thus far is a collection of viewpoints from throughout the region to take the temperature of all affected stakeholders. The agency plans to publish its findings late in 2013. Along with a final Environmental Impact Statement from the Army Corps on lower Snake River dredging and a draft biological opinion on salmon recovery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration due out at roughly the same time, the stars are aligning in the Pacific Northwest for the federal government to do more for our once-prodigious salmon runs.

“The time for a stakeholder solutions table is here,” said IRU salmon program director Greg Stahl. “The region can’t afford the economic uncertainty caused by a continued courtroom merry-go-round, and our salmon can’t afford another decade of legal wrangling, either.”