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10/27/2011

The Sound of a River Coming Back to Life

photoThe twelve-story Condit Dam was breached yesterday in an effort to restore fish habitat (Image via Flickr/River Drifters'

Today was a fine day for the White Salmon River, salmon and steelhead, and the people who love them. I was able to witness the blowing out of the lower part of the Condit dam and release of the White Salmon River to a free-flowing state for the first time in nearly 100 years. The 125 foot high Condit dam built in 1913 blocked the river and passage of salmon and steelhead until today.

Several dozen river and environmental advocates and members of the Yakama Indian Nation, Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, Nez Perce Tribe, Pacificorp, and various state and federal agencies attended the ceremonies and bore witness to this momentous event. Gerald Lewis and his brother Virgil, tribal leaders for Yakama Indian Nation, sang a song and provided a prayer for the safe and efficient removal of the dam and restoration of the river. It was a touching and heartfelt moment for all present. But it was clear that the many elders of the Tribe in attendance felt this moment in a deep and special way as this important part of their ancestral legacy was restored.

Yakama Indian Nation tribal eldersTribal elders from the Yakama Indian Nation gather with members of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission to celebrate the restoration of the White Salmon River (Image: Bill Arthur)

A river coming back to life does so with a roar. It began with the blast of dynamite – but continued as the river growled, churned, and threw itself downstream pouring mud and silt from the reservoir banks and exhuming trees that have been buried for nearly a century. It is an awesome sight to behold. The river washed silt that had settled from the 1980 blowing of Mt. St. Helens, along with the accumulated silt from the glaciers of Mt. Adams, where the White Salmon's headwaters form. The fishery biologists from the Tribe, Washington State, and the federal agencies want to see as much of the stored mud and silt move from this big bang as possible to hasten the cleaning of the river, and to prepare the river for the return of the salmon and steelhead.

As the renewed While Salmon River roared its way down the canyon to join the Columbia River, I couldn’t help but wonder if soon the time might come for the Lower Snake River – only a few miles further up the Columbia – to also join in this song of restoration. The Snake River once contributed fully 50% of the 30 million salmon and steelhead that historically ran up the Columbia River system. Removing the four dams on the Lower Snake River could restore this veritable Noah’s Ark of salmon, promoting the fish's recovery all the way into Central Idaho.

Roderick Haig-Brown book A River Never Sleeps extols the beauty and mystery of rivers, fish, and those who love to fly fish. Though he has been dead for 35 years, his words live on for fisherman everywhere. I believe he would have shared the joy of the people in attendance at the river coming back to life. It will take another year for the dam itself to be fully removed and for the canyon to become safe to raft and kayak. I can’t wait to float this section of the river with my son and fish for the salmon and steelhead that will ply these waters again. When I do, I will remember the song and prayer of the Yakama Tribal leaders. I will remember the smiles that lit the faces of everyone watching the fall of the dam – the beginning of a new era.

 

Guest column from Bill Arthur, Sierra Club Deputy National Organizing Director

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