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Officials: Wash. dam removal would hurt fish

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Fish advocates see the plan to demolish Condit Dam on the White Salmon River as good news for salmon everywhere, but the state Ecology Department says the project could hurt fish downstream and might violate the federal Endangered Species Act.

Demolition of the 125-foot-high hydroelectric dam, owned by Portland-based PacifiCorp, is proposed for October 2008. The project would open 33 miles of steelhead habitat and 14 miles of salmon habitat in the area of the river blocked by the dam since 1913.

The river forms a portion of the boundary between Klickitat and Skamania counties along the Columbia Gorge.

After years of negotiations and talks with regulators and environmental groups, PacifiCorp has begun filing permit applications to remove the dam that generates 14.7 megawatts, enough power for about 7,800 homes.

PacifiCorp proposes to tunnel and blast a 12- by 18-foot hole near the dam's base, drain Northwestern Lake and release more than 2 million yards of sediment that has built up behind the dam.

The sediment plume could kill fish and other aquatic species below Condit Dam and displace fish in the Columbia River downstream to Bonneville Dam, according to Ecology's draft environmental-impact statement.

Officials also fear the sediment could wipe out a population of endangered chum salmon for as long as four or five generations.

PacifiCorp has proposed lessening the overall impact by capturing returning fall chinook salmon before the dam is breached and transporting them to a hatchery for harvest of their eggs and milt to preserve the 2008 run.

But the statement said "it is probably not feasible to trap [chum] for hatchery rearing," and that species' spawning gravels likely would remain buried under silt the following year.

Few chum spawn above Bonneville Dam because the fish have difficulty navigating its fish ladders, said Carl Dugger, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said scientists did find a few chum spawning in the White Salmon River a few years ago, but added those fish were probably just strays.

The impact statement questions whether the fish population would be able to recover from the additional impacts of the sediment release. Environmentalists are optimistic.

"There's no question that removing a big dam is going to impact fish and water quality, but in the long term, the benefits are going to radically outweigh the short-term costs," said Brent Foster of Columbia Riverkeeper, one of a dozen environmental groups to formally endorse the project.