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Big bang at dam launches hopes for salmon and kayakers

WHITE SALMON, Wash. – Southwest Washington's White Salmon River is running free this morning for the first time in a century.

demolition contractors executed their plan flawlessly yesterday to blast a hole in the base of an aging hydropower dam. Condit Dam is the third large Northwest dam to meet the wrecking ball this year.

Seven hundred pounds of dynamite did the trick.

An audience of VIP's assembled by electric utility PacifiCorp cheered as the pent up White Salmon River burst forth.

The breach

A torrent of mud, water and debris poured through a hole in the base of the broad hydropower dam. The White Salmon turned into the grey-black salmon for the remainder of the afternoon. Rapidly, the reservoir behind the 125-foot tall dam drained, allowing whitewater kayaker Tom O'Keefe to dream about the rapids now exposed.

"This section downstream of the dam is just one of the most beautiful sections of river," O'Keefe says. "It's been de-watered this whole time. So when you paddle down there it's like really not enough water. Now that the river is free-flowing, once the dam is removed in another year, I am just really excited to paddle the whole length of this White Salmon River all the way out to the Columbia River."

Fish recovery

Yakama tribal members have dreamed of this day too. For more than twenty years, in fact. Tribal council member Virgil Lewis says the dam's removal opens more than 30 miles of previously blocked river for steelhead, chinook salmon, threatened bull trout and lamprey.

"It will be a truly historical day when the salmon start coming back naturally and spawning on their own. All user groups will benefit," Lewis says.

Tough choice

But not everyone in the area is in a giddy mood. Klickitat County Commissioner Rex Johnston says he felt "almost sick." Johnston can't believe people would voluntarily get rid of a non-polluting renewable source of electricity.

"To be destroying any green energy producing form of energy like a hydroelectric dam...That's as good as it gets as far as I'm concerned. That's just a shame to see it go away," Johnston says.

Condit Dam's owners say the decision to tear it down was at its heart a financial decision. PacifiCorp program manager Todd Olson says just look at the math.

"We looked at decommissioning and realized it was better for our customers to actually decommission the project than to spend probably three times more the cost to put in fish ladders and fish screens," Olson says.

Olson says Condit Dam produced enough electricity to supply about 7,000 average homes. He says the electricity will be replaced by upgrades to other company-owned dams or by natural gas-fired generation.

Dams on the Elwha River

The big blast at Condit Dam comes five weeks after the beginning of dam removal on Washington's Elwha River.

The conservation group American Rivers is so taken by the turn of events it declared 2011 "the year of the river." But after this there's a lull in the dam removal calendar in this region.

The next big river to be freed could be the Klamath near the Oregon-California border, but that's still years away if it happens.

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Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.