White Salmon homecoming

Through a grant from the Ecotrust-led Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative, the Yakama Nation is restoring native vegetation on a 2.8-acre footprint of the former Condit Dam reservoir.

By Jeanette Burkhardt, Yakama Nation Fisheries

It was hard to imagine, as the sun shone recently on a diverse volunteer crew busily replanting along the White Salmon River, that exactly two years to the day, just downriver, 700 pounds of dynamite had uncorked Condit Dam and drained Northwestern Lake down to a river in less than two hours. The blast on October 26th, 2011 unleashed a century’s worth of pent-up fury, silt, gravel, organic debris, and water-drunk logs through the drainhole in the bottom of the dam, likened by one Yakama elder to the freeing of wild horses. A landscape was transformed in an improbably compressed time scale, inspiring awe in those who observed it. Until the removal of Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River is complete, this is the largest dam removal undertaken in the United States to date.

Condit Dam before and after removal, showing recovery of the river’s natural channel after the draining of Northwestern Lake.

In the last century, the river and its tributaries have been used for timber transport, irrigation, domestic water, and more recently, for recreation. Due to its steep gradient and confined channel, the White Salmon River was also selected for the Condit hydroelectric project. The construction of the dam in 1913 provided power while disrupting a number of dynamic natural processes and blocking passage up- and downstream to salmon, steelhead and other anadromous fishes for a century.

We marked the second anniversary of the dam’s breach by sinking shovels into the sediment, helping to kick-start the succession of riparian and upland forest. Just yards away, members of one of the first cohorts of spawning fall Chinook to return to the upper river protected their gravel nests (also called “redds”). Through a grant from the Ecotrust-led Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative, the Yakama Nation is restoring native vegetation on a 2.8-acre footprint of the former Condit Dam reservoir. The site is being rehabilitated with native plant species to improve and ensure the future quality of fish and wildlife habitat, prevent excessive inputs of sediment into the river, and restore various ecosystem processes crucial to high quality fish habitat (such as shading, cover, aquatic insect production, future recruitment of large woody material, etc.) for the five ESA-listed anadromous fish species and others native to the basin.

Many of these plant species being re-established are not only ecologically important, but also culturally significant to Yakama people. The ancestors would have used these plants through millennia while following the seasonal round of subsistence, and their descendants still value them today as foods, medicines, and for ceremonial and other uses. An interpretive user trail will guide community members and visitors through the site, explaining the significance of the area and its native vegetation to the human and wildlife communities that have relied and continue to rely on it. The trail will welcome people back to observe how the site evolves and matures over time.

There are many demands on the White Salmon River as it continues to evolve, finding its way into old channels, shifting and pushing gravels around, gnawing at its banks, rafting and re-depositing wood that provides critical ecological function and habitat.  Salmon and steelhead are returning to an ancestral river some have never seen – exploring, spawning, recharging the watershed with marine nutrients as they decompose and reclaiming a key position in the local food web once again.  This is a new phase for the White Salmon River basin, one in which the human inhabitants will play a key role.  Climate change, increasing development and other pressures on the river will be some of the challenges heading into the future. While there are many unknowns, we can expect that while the river flows, it will continue to change.

Jeanette Burkhardt is a Watershed Planner for the Yakama Nation Fisheries program working in the southern ceded lands of the Yakama Nation, which include the White Salmon River (