Northwestern Lake lies in southern Washington, just north of the Columbia River Gorge. It is a small, but beautiful teal colored lake that harbors an ecosystem unique to
the region, replete with species of rare fish, plants, and animals that are protected by state and federal environmental laws. Yet this environmental jewel is about to be set on a course for destruction, not by
development or commerce, but by environmental leaders charged with protecting such resources. In destroying this lake, environmentalists will be sacrificing practically every environmental value they hold, all for a
fleeting political opportunity - to claim that they instigated the removal of the first dam on the Columbia/Snake River system.
Northwestern Lake is in essence a very short segment of the White Salmon River, which
flows into the Columbia River. The lake's present dilemma stems solely from the fact that it was not formed by a naturally occurring landslide, but rather by a man-made dam, almost 100 years ago, for the purpose of
power production. The tragic legacy of these origins is that during that time, salmon and steelhead have had no passage upstream of what is now called Condit Dam.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently
attempted to remedy this situation by requiring PacifiCorp, the present owners of the power facility, to install a state of the art fish passage system. The system would include a highly effective upstream fish ladder
and downstream passage enhancements designed to provide a 95% survival rate for migrating fish.
However, it does not come cheap; the cost will be approximately $30 million. The Commission prescribed this fish passage
system after years of study went into an Environmental Impact Statement, which considered numerous alternatives, including dam removal. The study rejected dam removal as being too expensive, at possibly twice the cost
of the fish passage system. The huge price tag for dam removal was based on the fact that over two million cubic yards of sediment have accumulated behind the dam and the environmentally responsible way to remove the
sediment is to dredge and haul it away, an enormously expensive process.
However, environmental leaders were not satisfied with just the restoration of salmon to the upper river. They wanted a dam removal. To
accomplish this, they have proposed an irresistible deal to PacifiCorp: "you can take the dam out for just $10 million; as far as were concerned, it's O.K. to handle the two million cubic yards of sediment by
blowing a hole in the dam and letting it all wash down river." If PacifiCorp agrees to take the dam out, this deal will be the heart of the agreement.
Essentially, the costs of proper disposal of the sediment
will be shifted from PacifiCorp to the public and to the environment. Payment will occur in several ways. First, a large portion of the sediment will settle out in the mouth of the White Salmon River, where it will
cause flooding of the Native American in-lieu fishing site. Inevitably, the Army Corp of Engineers will have to dredge this area, thereby passing some of the direct expense to taxpayers
However, the biggest price will
be paid by the White Salmon River, including every living thing in it. The potential for massive destruction of habitat and fish is obvious. Dam removal proponents and PacifiCorp have attempted to paper over the
consequences with a thick engineering report. This report concludes that, with precise timing, flushing the sediment downriver will probably have acceptable environmental impacts. However, a careful reading of the
report reveals that the conclusions are based on a huge amount of speculation. In truth the details of the report raise far more questions than provide answers. One thing is clear, not only is it certain that the
sediment flush will kill all fish in the river at the time of the initial release, but there is a significant risk that it could periodically continue killing fish for years.
The fish at risk are not only those
spawning in the White Salmon River, but numerous endangered species that "rest" in the mouth of the White Salmon River on their spawning journeys up the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
The costs of Condit Dam's
removal do not end there. The unique ecosystem and wildlife habitat provided by Northwestern Lake, including extensive wetlands, will be lost. Plants and animals listed as sensitive and threatened will be destroyed.
Native trout protected by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act will be decimated. A pristine flatwater recreational experience, cherished by young families and older citizens, will be displaced by a mediocre whitewater
segment that pales in comparison to the endless miles of superb whitewater currently upstream of the lake.
And the list goes on. All of these losses can be avoided by simply doing what years of study suggested -
build a quality fish passage system and retain Northwestern Lake. Scottish Power Co., which is attempting to buy PacifiCorp, certainly has the resources to build such a system. It has stated that it would like to
develop renewable power sources in the Northwest. Hydropower is one of the cleanest possible energy sources. Once fish passage is reestablished, the power produced could be marketed at a higher rate as a green"
energy source, thereby recouping the cost of the fish passage system. And salmon could be restored to the White Salmon River almost immediately, as opposed to the years and years that the dam removal process will
inevitably drag out to.
If, as dam removal proponents hope, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt will someday soon stand atop Condit Dam and declare that it must come down, they too must prepare themselves to pay
the price. For them, that price will be the butchering of their environmental values. In the years to come, they must employ every loophole and legal artifice possible in order to thwart the Endangered Species Act, the
Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, clean water laws, erosion control laws, and wetland protection laws. And they must ignore basic
ecological principals that compel the use of clean power sources and the preservation of greater biodiversity. And ultimately, they have to be able to assure themselves that they know what is best for the environment
and for the rest of us, and that whatever that may be, it can never be something made by human hands.
White Salmon. Wa.
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