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The Condit Dam Removal and Moving Forward in the White Salmon River

Emily Washines writes that the October 26, 2011 Condit Dam removal was a happy day for tribal members, the salmon, and for the White Salmon River itself.

The existence of Condit Dam has been a blink of time in the history of the White Salmon watershed.

Since time immemorial, the White Salmon River has originated from the southwestern slope of Mount Adams. The White Salmon River, m?t'úla wana, was named for the white salmon. White salmon spawned here, the salmon eggs grew and went towards the ocean. They grew more and then they returned.

In those days, salmon were in abundance. Many tribal members would gather along the banks to fish from the rocks or river. The unique rainfall pattern in this area—wet on the west side, dry on the east side—produced a remarkable variety of foods and medicines that cause the White Salmon to be an important food gathering center for tribal members. People would gather here to hunt, fish, and gather berries and hazelnuts. Even today, the trained tribal eye can detect places where our elders fished, hunted, made baskets, and stored food.

On the confluence of the White Salmon and Columbia Rivers, there is a village that is central to some of our oral traditions. The mouth of the White Salmon is also a traditional trading area that our elders refer to as namnit. At the end of the fall salmon run, houses and drying sheds would have been visible along both banks of the White Salmon River.

Change began when nearly a century ago, when 125-foot high Condit Dam was constructed on the White Salmon River to provide cheap electricity in a region hungry for industrial development. The decision to block the White Salmon River for hydropower came at a price; the abundant salmon, steelhead, and lamprey that once returned there were lost. Also lost were the tribal fisheries and cultural activities that are inseparable from the presence of these foods. All life is intertwined.

Yesterday, the removal of the Condit Dam was begun—a happy day for tribal members, the salmon, and for the White Salmon River itself. Fourteen years have passed since PacifiCorp, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) co-sponsored the first engineering study that suggested dam removal could be a cost-effective option. From here, the Yakama Nation and CRITFC engaged in negotiations that led to an agreement to consider dam removal. This initial agreement served as the foundation for further negotiations with an array of agencies and environmental organizations and PacifiCorp's eventual decision to remove the dam.

The second-largest dam to be removed for fish passage in the United States, Condit Dam’s removal represents more than crumbling concrete. Working in partnership will once again allow us all to witness the salmon's cycle of life which nourishes the watershed and our people.

As children, we learned the importance of water. Water is the foundation of all living things it is the first food to be placed at our ceremonial table. As adults, we learned that when we fix the water and restore the land to its historical conditions we restore resources around it.

One restoration and partnership example began twenty years ago when the Bonneville Power Administration assisted us with the purchase of a wheat field. When we applied the teachings of water-first to restoration, this resulted in the return of our traditional foods and medicine. After a seventy year absence, the wapato (potato) returned without seeds and without planting.

The removal of Condit Dam will be the first step in restoration for the White Salmon River ecosystem. For the first time in nearly 100 years, salmon and steelhead will be able to return to their ancestral spawning grounds above the dam, countless miles of habitat will be reopened, and lamprey will be given a much needed refuge. The wetlands and meadows that have provided traditional foods and medicines for our people can begin the healing process.

Our elders say the White Salmon basin, xwáshxway'pum (blue jay country), was a paradise. Recently, one of our elders chose to be buried here next to his father, xwáshxway (blue jay). Even though his family has inherited land along the White Salmon River, this decision came as a surprise to the younger generation. After dam construction began, there was a loss of resources which resulted in a gradual decline in the use of the basin. Now, we know that this elder had the foresight to lead a path for future generations and those not yet born.

After 100 years, the river is being returned to the salmon and the Yakama people. We have been taught that when we fix the water the traditional foods will follow. When we fix the White Salmon River; salmon, steelhead, and lamprey will follow. Our tribal members will be there to greet them because íchi tímani tiichám iwa niimi. This land is a part of us.

Emily Washines, Yakama/Cree/Skokomish, is the Restoration and Remediation Coordinator for the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program, has a Master of Public Administration from the Evergreen State College, and is a former Miss National Congress of American Indians.