In Our View: Condit Dam a lesson in nature’s reinvention

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The breaching of the Condit Dam along the White Salmon River might or might not provide some lessons about dam removal. But it definitely offers instruction about the remarkable resiliency of ecosystems.

Condit Dam was removed in 2011 — 99 years after the 125-foot-high hydroelectric structure was built. At the time, it was the largest dam removal in U.S. history, a breach that lowered Northwestern Lake and disgorged millions of cubic yards of sediment from behind the dam. Now, a decade later, scientists are assessing the impact of returning the White Salmon to its natural state.

As Columbian reporter Lauren Ellenbecker wrote recently: “As the river healed after nearly a century of captivity, so did the ecosystems around it. Fish returned, plant species were introduced and flourished, as did the pollinators that arrived shortly after. The biodiversity surrounding the White Salmon expanded, as did the conversation regarding river and cultural restoration.”

That conversation is informed by increasing knowledge about rivers and the interaction of ecosystems. Changes vast and small often have unintended and unexpected benefits.

In the same vein, one can consider the impact of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. As a fascinating video about the trophic cascade created by that decision explains, wolves altered the behavior of deer in the park and “in some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years.” The numbers of birds, beavers, muskrats, rabbits, weasels, badgers and bears increased. Even “the rivers changed in response to the wolves.”

The banks and the waters of the White Salmon River, obviously, are much different from the vast expanse and ecological diversity of Yellowstone Park. But some of the lessons from the nation’s oldest national park can be extended to the area that straddles Skamania and Klickitat counties. They also can be applied to discussions about whether to breach dams along the Lower Snake River.

Environmentalists long have advocated for the removal of four dams, saying it is crucial for the survival of salmon throughout the Columbia River Basin. The future of orcas, which feed on salmon, has been added to the discussion.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has developed a proposal for removing the dams and providing $33 billion in federal mitigation money. Breaching the dams would negatively impact hydroelectricity production, irrigation, river navigation and other economic concerns, and Simpson spent years holding meetings with stakeholders while seeking an appropriate balance.

Simpson’s plan has drawn pushback from both Republicans in Congress and from environmentalists. Recently, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray announced plans for a study about how to replace the benefits provided by the dams.

As The Columbian wrote editorially in March: “All stakeholders can find something to like in the proposal — as well as reason for opposition. That highlights the complexity of the issue while reinforcing the fact that decades of salmon recovery efforts are falling short.”

Whether or not this ties in with the breaching of Condit Dam in 2011 is open for debate. The economic implications are dissimilar, and removal of Condit did not threaten downstream settlements.

But for now we are fascinated by how nature has reinvented itself along the White Salmon River. And we are hopeful that wise management can allow ecosystems to thrive.

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