While many mid-Columbia residents may believe that salmon habitat restoration on the White Salmon River was achieved by the removal of Condit Dam, actually that momentous act signified just the beginning of restoration. Habitat, underwater for decades, has needed native tree and shrub planting, post-dam salmon studies, and adetermination of the fate of over 500 acres of PacifiCorps lands adjacent to the former Condit Dam.
According to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), and US Geological Survey in their April 2016 report in Fisheries, both salmon and steelhead species seem to be taking advantage of new spawning and rearing habitat options made available via the removal of Condit Dam. The former dam restricted anadromous fish to less suitable spawning and rearing habitat downstream of the dam and blocked up to 50 km of potential habitat for steelhead, 7 km of habitat for fall Chinook Salmon, 15 km of habitat for spring Chinook Salmon, and 27 km of habitat for Coho Salmon.
WDFW reports that spring Chinook are utilizing the area above Condit Dam’s former location with most of the spawning occurring below Husum Falls. The falls, ranging from 10-12 feet in height, are about 4.5 miles from BZ Falls, which would stop all but the most athletic fish.
The spawning in long-vacant areas upstream of the former dam and its reservoir, Northwestern Lake, indicates the first success of the salmon restoration for the White Salmon basin: the natural re-colonization of species that flourished in the river prior to dam construction.
A few spring Chinook were suspected in recent history to have spawned annually in the lower 3.3 miles of the river as well as the White Salmon tributaries of Rattlesnake Creek (entering the White Salmon at rkm 11.9), Spring Creek (rkm 10.6), Buck Creek (rkm 8.0), and Mill Creek (rkm 6.4). However, most of the new recruits are believed to be strays from nearby rivers and hatcheries. Nearby donors could be the Hood River across the Columbia in Oregon and Washington’s Klickitat River. Compared to other salmon streams, the mainstem White Salmon River water is cold throughout the year, and river flow is maintained by springs and seeps coming from high-altitude snowmelt throughout the year.
The White Salmon Working Group, which is a consortium of Yakama Nation, federal, state, and PacifiCorp biologists, has estimated the White Salmon River has enough spawning grounds to accommodate more than 600 steelhead spawners and 1,200 fall Chinook. Bull trout, Coho, lamprey and spring Chinook could also benefit from a reconnected river.
More than $37 million has been invested in restoring fish passage to the White Salmon River, and efforts are underway to learn about the results of that investment. The 2016 monitoring of juvenile salmon is funded by a grant from the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In addition to the rotary screw trap, the grant will support limited sampling of juvenile salmon and steelhead in the mainstem White Salmon River and selected tributaries by scientists using backpack electrofishing.