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Brian Clark Howard

For National Geographic News

Published October 28, 2011

This story is part of a special National Geographic News series on global water issues.

For 98 years, the 125-foot high Condit Dam in southeastern Washington State held back the White Salmon River, creating a serene lake, but choking off the waterway to salmon. Wednesday, in an historic effort, the dam was dramatically breached, and ecologists hope the increased flow of water will restore the waterway to fish and other aquatic organisms, as well as the birds and mammals that rely on them.

The dam removal comes just weeks after dismantling began on the Elwha Dam a few hours to the north. Demolition of the Condit occured with a bang, compared to the virtual whimper of the Elwha. At that site, downstream from Olympic National Park, engineers are dismantling the two dams slowly, in a process that's expected to take three years. They say a quicker removal would endanger the area due to the higher amount of silt in the lake.

Silt is still readily apparent in the dramatic video above, both in the darkly colored water rushing from underneath the conrete and in the fast-emptying lake.

(Related: Bulldozers Tear Into Elwha Dam)

To capture the action in the above video, Andy Maser of Maser Films set up several cameras, starting in July. He plans on documenting the changes in the basin in the ensuing months. Maser used a combination of still and video recording, compiled on his computer after he was able to retreive the data from his cameras.

Security was tight around the river for the demolition. So few dams have been removed that engineers don't have experience with how banks might be affected. PacifiCorp, the utility that owns the site, had estimated the lake would drain in about six hours, but Maser tells us that it actually emptied in less than two.

Maser also pointed out that, according to officials, anyone near enough to see the dam demolition would have started bleeding from the ears, thanks to the resulting shock wave.

According to Indian Country, Wednesday was "a happy day for tribal members, the salmon, and for the White Salmon River itself." The paper pointed out that fourteen years had passed since PacifiCorp, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) co-sponsored the studies that showed dam removal could be cost-effective.

Efforts by those groups and environmental organizations helped lead to the final moment.

According to news reports, Portland-based PacifiCorp had decided that it was cheaper to source the dam's 14 megawatts elsewhere, rather than install expensive fish ladders and other improvements on the site, as would have been required for relicensing. According to the AP, the dam removal cost around $32 million, while the improvements would have cost $100 million.

(Related: Intro to Soil and Water Pollution)

The rest of the dam is going to be taken down in the ensuing months.

The White Salmon River starts on the slopes of Mount Adams, in the Cascades, and winds through the region on its way to join the Columbia River. Previously, salmon and lampreys could only migrate 3.3 miles upriver, where they were blocked by the dam. Now, they should be able to travel much farther inland.

Before the dam was demolished, biologists relocated salmon that were spawning below the structure, so their nests wouldn't be covered with silt.

Andy Maser has previously received grants from the National Geographic Society to assist with studying elephants in the Congo. In 2009, he received a Young Explorer grant from the Society to study climate change by kayaking in Bolivia.


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