Condit Dam Removal Complete!

Barely a year after the breach of Condit Dam, all of the concrete has been removed and the White Salmon flows freely.  By all counts the dam removal has been a success–salmon have returned and spawned above the site, rafters and kayakers are regularly paddling the river, and the whole effort happened without major incident.  A huge congratulations to the contractor, JR Merit, is certainly in order.  Nicely done!


The most striking thing about the Condit Dam site today is the lack of evidence that the dam was ever there.  It’s almost disorienting–the dam and its related infrastructure was a fixture of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember.  When I walk around the site today I almost find myself getting lost.  It’s weird and really fantastic.

Through the Notch

While paddling through the site of the former dam is certainly an incredible experience, it’s really the salmon recovery that makes the dam removal truly exciting.  When I pressed most biologists to predict when salmon might return to spawn, I usually got a conservative 3-4 year estimate.  But salmon had already started spawning above and below the former dam site before crews had even finished removing the last of the concrete.  The lower river sufficiently recovered from the sediment bomb of breach day for salmon to spawn downstream and upstream habitat remained in great shape.  The biggest thing we’ve learned from this process?  If we get out of the way and let nature do it’s thing, recovery will happen incredibly quickly.  But, hey, don’t take my word for it.  Ask this guy…


So what happens next?  Crews still need to finish wrestling with the log jam in the Narrows and tree planting will happen in the former reservoir area.  There’s lots on monitoring left to do and lose ends to tie up, but this dam removal’s just about wrapped!

Now, I know what you’re wondering.  Yes, we have the complete timelapse footage of the dam removal processed and ready to go.  And no, you can’t see it.  Yet.  (Sorry!)  I’m producing a special for PBS about Condit and the timelapse footage will premiere with the show sometime this spring.  Once it has aired, we’ll put both the complete show and the timelapase footage here on the site.  In the meantime, just keep rewatching the footage from breach day…

Stay tuned–more updates to come!

Early Spring Dam Removal Update

Winter has turned to spring on the White Salmon and crews are now steadily chipping away at the concrete structure of Condit Dam.  The major event now is the removal of the coffer dam–crews are working right now to remove it before spring fish runs begin making their way into the White Salmon and up towards the dam site.

Downstream, the river has eroded a meandering channel in the sediment deposits and is starting to look like a natural stream again.  Healthy sediment deposits have been restored and the river is quickly cutting through much of the surplus deposited during the breach and settling into its path.

Upstream at the Northwestern Lake Park, crews are working to have a boaters’ takeout ready in time for Memorial Day–something I’m sure the commercial rafters and recreational boaters alike are excited about.

On the timelapse front, our cameras have been steadily clicking away all winter and won’t be stopping anytime soon.  Expect photo updates from Steve and I throughout the spring and summer, but I don’t plan to put together another timelpase clip until late summer when the dam has been completely removed.  Have to save the video updates for milestones in the dam removal process!

Thanks for following our site during the slower winter times.  As soon as the action picks up again, we’ll be sure to increase the frequency of our updates.

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!

Anticipation Grows for Condit Dam Removal

The anticipation along the White Salmon is palpable.  River enthusiasts are chomping at the bit to see what new whitewater they have to explore, scientists are on the edge of their seats to see what happens to the millions of cubic yards of trapped sediment, concerned local residents are anxious to see whether their worst fears are realized.  Me?  I just hope all my cameras work.

In this video I recently produced, I check in with two local residents to learn what they’re looking forward to.  Heather Herbeck works for Wet Plantet, a local raft company, and is excited to explore the new whitewater in her backyard.  Phyllis Clausen, 30 year resident of Trout Lake, WA, is excited to see a project she’s poured her heart and soul into finally come to fruition.

What about you?  What are you looking forward to seeing, learning or experiencing when Condit is breached in two weeks and the lake is drained?

Looking North to the Elwha

While the countdown continues to the breach of Condit Dam on October 26th, another huge dam removal project is progressing on the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River.  The removal of two dams on the Elwha is being called the largest river restoration event in history–involving the removal of two massive dams to restore salmon and steelhead spawning habitat cut off for nearly 100 years.

The project appears to be progressing well–with water now flowing over or around both structures.

The two dams on the Elwha are being removed gradually over a 3-year period, with breaks taken in the project during particularly sensitive times for salmon and steelhead.  It will be interesting to keep and eye on the Elwha to see how this slower removal process compares to the more rapid approach planned for Condit.

Stay tuned for more on the Elwha as the project develops: Seattle Times Special Report. 

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!

Inside Look: Condit Dam Deconstruction

This past week, Steve and I were invited behind the scenes to see how things are progressing at the Condit Dam site.  Blasting earlier that day meant that we couldn’t go down into the riverbed, but we still were able to see some interesting stuff.

Dredging just upstream of the dam has recently begun to minimize the risk of the hole getting immediately clogged with muck when the dam is breached.




The hole in the dam is gradually getting deeper.  There will be 3 or 4 more blasts before breach day, when the final 15 feet will be blown out and the White Salmon set free.



From everything we saw and heard, things are progressing on schedule for an October 26th breach of the dam at about 12 noon.  It sounds like PacifiCorp will be taking select groups down to the site following the blast to watch the lake drain, and the conservation groups are planning a celebration event at Wet Planet in Husum.  Stay tuned for updates both on deconstruction and timelapse progress, and more info for where to celebrate and how to watch the breach online.  In the meantime, enjoy these shots from our evening at the dam.

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)

What’s Waiting Below Northwestern Lake?

The rumor mill is churning at full tilt right now along the shores of the White Salmon.  Residents are worried about an unsightly mud pit, whitewater kayakers are getting excited about the possibility of new rapids, and scientists are geeking out.  The fact of the mater is, no dam this tall has ever been removed (it’s 125 feet tall), and no dam with this much sediment has ever been taken out (approximately 2.3 million cubic yards–holy toledo).  So what going to happen is anyone’s guess.  One thing we do know about rivers is that they’re resilient, so if residents’ worst fears are realized and there is a big mud pit exposed, I wouldn’t expect it to stay that way for too long.  Guess we’ll find out soon enough though!

For your enjoyment…

And for you real science geeks out there, check out the full Sediment Assessment, Stabilization, and Management Plan.

There’s also tons of other goodies on PacifiCorp’s Condit Site.