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!

Condit Dam Removal Update #4

November 2011 View of #2 (upstream) coffer dam.

There’s been reference to “coffer dams” (or cofferdams) on this site, but what does the term mean?   A coffer dam is defined as a watertight enclosure from which water is pumped to expose the bottom of a body of water to permit construction of piers, dams, etc.

One of the many fascinations of the Condit Dam breaching was re-emergence of the original coffer dam used to re-route the river during construction 99 years ago (see Condit Dam History Part 5).  All of the wood submerged by the reservoir  seems to have been well preserved, including tree stumps, coffer dams, flumes and crib walls.   

This outcome has some real significance in terms of river restoration.  On the negative side, Coffer Dam #2 is now preventing the exit of some sediment from the upstream river canyon.  If left in place, the dam would also limit upstream passage of fish.  To alleviate the blockage, the coffer dam, and adjacent crib wall that originally directed water into the bell mouth of Tunnel #1, will be removed this winter.  The structures will soon transition into history. 

On the positive side, however, the preservation of tree stumps below the reservoir shores has provided the river restorationist with an accurate record of the species, density and size of the trees that grew along the canyon 99 years ago.  They also define the pre-project ground topography, which will be important in devising regrading plans.  This data has special importance, since there is very little photographic, map or written description of the canyon before 1912.

The photo below provides a glimpse of the untouched canyon above the dam.  As expected, the steep, dry, shallow-soil hillsides immediately above the river supported species such as Oregon white oak, dry adapted shrubs like mockorange and hazel, and scattered conifers.  Where hill slopes were less steep and supported deeper soils, the primary trees were probably a mixture of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. 

(click on image(s) for larger view)

August 1912 View of #2 (upstream) coffer dam.

Photos and Video from Condit Breach Day

Well folks, October 26th, 2011 is certainly a day that will go down in history. After the Blaster in Charge yelled “fire in the hole!” and ignited the charges, the White Salmon was explosively set free for the first time in 100 years.  The lake took less than 2 hours to drain, carrying an incredible amount of sediment and debris downstream to the Columbia.  Now, a more gradual process begins–the erosion of millions of cubic yards of trapped silt, the return of threatened salmon and ultimately the complete removal of Condit Dam.

Enjoy these photos and video from breach day and stay tuned for more updates as the sediment erodes and the White Salmon re-carves its course. And check out this National Geographic News story, where the breach video first appeared.

Big thanks to American Whitewater, American Rivers, Pro Photo Supply and Clif Bar for making this coverage possible!

Condit Dam Removal Video

What a powerful few days it’s been.  I’m exhausted, elated and very excited to see what’s in store for the White Salmon in the coming months.  While I finally catch up on some sleep, enjoy this video clip that I put together for National Geographic that includes video and timelapse imagery.


(10/30 update: see the more recent post for the video clip.  The National Geographic embed code doesn’t cooperate well with WordPress)

We have more than a terabyte of images from Wednesday, so stay tuned!

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 Coming Down Today

We’ve been up since 5a.m. setting up the cameras. Working quickly because we only have a short time to make sure the system is ready to go… and because we’re so excited. Today’s the day. At noon Pacific, 3p.m. Eastern, crews will blast a tunnel into the base of Condit Dam, effectively freeing the White Salmon for the first time in a century.

We’ll be posting photos and video as soon as possible, so stay tuned… but you can catch the live stream of the Condit blast on the American Rivers website. Get excited. It’s a landmark day and it’s time to celebrate!


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.