Condit Dam Breach: Before and After Images

In skimming through my images one day, I stumbled upon an interesting image I shot months ago from the top of Condit Dam.  The lightbulb went on, and I realized that I had this gem of a before&after sequence:

Enjoy these other shots taken over the course of the last 6 months.  Happy holidays everyone!


(This post scheduled in advance–I’m sitting on a sailboat in Baja right now.  Back mid January!)

Big Changes on the White Salmon

It’s been quite a dynamic 6 weeks on the White Salmon since the October 26th breach of Condit Dam.  Incredible amounts of sediment have moved out of the former reservoir as the river gradually find its way down to the bedrock and into its original channel.  Some of the current sights were predicted–like the emergence of the old cofferdam–others are a total surprise–like the speed at which the uppermost part of the reservoir has eroded.

If you haven’t watched the breach video yet, definitely check it out.  Even if you have seen it, watch it again!

Recently, I headed out to the White Salmon with Rod Engle, a biologist for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, to film a news clip for National Geographic.  That video will premiere online shortly, but I thought I’d share some of what we saw that day in the meantime.

The most surprising update is the amount of sediment downcutting that is happening around the Northwestern Lake Road Bridge.  In Rod’s words, erosion expected to take about a year has happened in only 6 weeks.  Check out these two before and after images by local resident and photographer, Michael Peterson:

Looking upstream from the NW Lake Rd Bridge
Looking downstream from the NW Lake Rd Bridge

You might remember that earlier this fall, the Fish & Wildlife folks rounded up hundreds of wild Tule Chinook Salmon below the dam and transported them upstream to spawn.  The goal was both to prevent them from creating redds (salmon nests) below the dam that would certainly be wiped out during the breach, and to jump start the species recovery process.  Their experiment was proven a success when tons of redds appeared in the upper White Salmon (which helps fuel the debate as to whether using hatcheries in these situations is really necessary–kudos to USFWS and the Yakima Tribe for opting not to go that route on the White Salmon…)

There’s just one problem though…the rapid downcutting exposed some of the redds.  Luckily though, 85% of the documented redds are upstream, out of the path of the downcutting.  It was strange digging around in a threatened salmon redd, but pretty cool to dissect one and really see how it works.


Not much action is happening down at the dam.  The Merit folks have been working on sediment monitoring and figuring out how much active removal will need to happen.  It sounds like the next priorities are to make the whitewater boaters’ takeout usable again and remove the cofferdam.  Incidentally, the takeout is closed both because of sediment and because the foundation of the original bridge was exposed by the downcutting–making the river pretty sketchy.  So, unless you have a friend with riverfront property somewhere upstream of the bridge, there’s really no way to raft or kayak the Lower White Salmon.

What’s happening next with the timelapse project?  Well, the cameras are on autopilot right now–snapping away as things gradually change.  They’ll be running for the next few years as the dam disappears and the landscape settles and revegetates.  Expect another update shortly when my next Condit news clip is released on National Geographic, but otherwise, I’m heading to Baja for some vacation!

The White Salmon River is Freed With a Boom!

Yesterday was incredibly powerful and almost unbelievable. Within seconds of the blast, the White Salmon burst through Condit Dam and Northwestern Lake, the reservoir behind the dam, was drained within an hour — much faster than anyone had anticipated.

I spent much of last night and this morning wading through the incredible amount of images that I was able to capture with our cameras and my computers are still cranking through the rest. I’ll be posting more images and video later this afternoon, but until then here are a few photos to whet your appetite.

And you can see the livestream video from yesterday here…

Condit Dam Breach Scheduled for Tomorrow

An eerie calm has settled over Condit Dam.  All of the heavy equipment and scaffolding has been removed and the barge pulled out of the lake.  The workforce has been paired down and there is almost no activity around the dam.  It appears that the JR Merit team and their crew of contractors is nearly ready for the explosive breach tomorrow at noon.  Their attention has turned to safety and crowd control, while our small media crew is in full gear preparing a complex multi-camera shoot.  For everyone involved, years of planning will come down to one explosive moment tomorrow at noon.

Let me introduce you to Larry Moran.  Tomorrow, Larry will be in a helicopter patrolling the dam site and the area of river between the dam and the Columbia.  If Larry sees anyone in the area, he will shut down the blast until a team of local police can locate and remove the person.  The man has eyes like and eagle and isn’t messing around–I’m not sure I’d want him to be mad at me.  According to Larry, the concussive force of the blast will be strong enough to make your ears bleed if you’re close enough to watch it in person.  I also certainly wouldn’t really want to be responsible for the dam breach being postponed, because I’d have to answer to a lot more folks than Larry.

To satisfy the public’s desire to watch the blast, PacifiCorp has set up a live webcast of the breach and will be announcing the URL on their website on Wednesday at 11am.  There’s also a long list of parties to choose from, compiled on the Wet Planet blog.

This request is coming straight from me:  Please do not try to hike in to watch the blast or the rush of water in person.  Selfishly, our cameras are set on timers, and long delays could mean that we miss the blast from some angles.  In addition to Larry and hundreds of other folks who have worked very hard on this, I’ll not be happy.  The entire river corridor will be closed from the dam to the Columbia, so please stay clear!

Our plan for shooting the blast is complex and exciting:

  • Our two long-term time-lapse camera stations (equipped with Canon T2is) will be shooting one JPG frame every 3 seconds all day
  • A second still camera (Canon 1D Mark 4) will be shooting 1 RAW frame per second for 45 minutes starting 5 minutes before the blast
  • Two video cameras–a Sony FS100 and a Sony EX1–will each be shooting HD video for about 8 hours starting at 10am
  • Steve and I will both be mobile with Canon 5Ds

We’ll be the only ones shooting high quality still images of the blast at this tight of a sequence, and we’re excited to see what we get!  All photography is being made possible by intervalometers with an internal real-time clock, allowing us to shoot sequences of images at specific times of the day.  After setup, the cameras will be on their own until the end of the day.

Check back first thing Thursday morning for the first images from the breach.  I’m more excited than anyone to see them, so I’ll be sure to process them quickly and get them out.  If you’re interested in using images, please email me.

Cheers to the White Salmon!

What It’s All About

For the first time in 100 years, chinook salmon are spawning in the White Salmon River above Condit Dam.  It’s happening thanks to a USFWS program that’s been going on over the course of the last month to both protect this year’s spawners, and help jump start the recovery process.

Normally, these threatened Tule Chinook would swim as far upstream as they could–Condit Dam for the last 100 years–then find a suitable site to spawn and die.  Eggs laid below the dam this fall, though, would risk being wiped out by the massive sediment-laden torrent of water that’ll be sent downstream once Condit is breached in late October.  So to protect this year’s offspring, and to give the recovery process a head start, USFWS has been rounding up returning fall chinook below the dam and transporting them upstream–with hopes that they’d spawn.

Tule Chinook Salmon Digging a Redd (video still)

Well, the experiment worked.  The lower White Salmon River has several incredible areas of spawning habitat and the fish are loving it.  Next spring, their eggs will hatch and the salmon will be swept downstream through a hole in the base of Condit Dam and eventually to the ocean.  And in 3-5 years, they’ll return to the White Salmon to spawn and die like their parents are doing right now.

Rod Engle, USFWS Biologist, admires his work

This weekend, I headed out with Hayden Peters to document some of the spawning.  Using techniques I learned from filming wild endangered Salmon River Chinook in Marsh Creek, ID, we captured some incredible moving images of spawning activity.  My filming techniques were developed under the close supervision of 30-year veteran field biologist Russ Thurow last summer to minimize the impact on highly stressed spawners.  Not only were the fish on the White Salmon not spooked off of their redds by our presence, but our main problem was keeping them far enough away from our lens to get a decent shot.

Enjoy these behind the scenes photos from our day in the river!

Timelapse Cameras Finally Set Up!

After months of planning, Steve and I finally have our timelapse cameras in place and firing photos.  They’ll each be shooting one photo every daylight hour for the next few years, capturing the deconstruction of Condit Dam and the return of the White Salmon River to a healthy, freeflowing ecosystem.

The cameras are stationed in two spots–directly below the dam shooting upstream and 0.3 mi upstream of the dam shooting downstream.  We’ll be posting video clips as progress happens, so stay tuned!

What the Heck is Timelapse?

Let’s illustrate with a really cool example…

According to the good folks of Wikipedia…

Time-lapse photography is a cinematography technique whereby the frequency at which film frames are captured (the frame rate) is much lower than that which will be used to play the sequence back. When replayed at normal speed, time appears to be moving faster and thus lapsing. For example, an image of a scene may be captured once every second, and then played back at 30 frames per second; the result would be an apparent increase of speed by 30 times. 

Processes that would normally appear subtle to the human eye, such as the motion of the sun and stars in the sky, become very pronounced.  Another example: Watching a 125 foot tall dam on the White Salmon River be removed in one minute. (ok, that last part’s not from Wikipedia)