UNDERWOOD, Wash. — Biologists and kayakers in Washington are eagerly watching how the White Salmon River evolves, in the wake of the recent removal of the Condit Dam. But area environmental groups find themselves focusing on a proposal to intensify development near the White Salmon River.
When the Condit Dam came out, it drained an old reservoir, opened up underground tributaries, and dried up wells for cabins nearby.
The water past the old dam site is chocolate brown with eroded sediment. Tractors on the river bank are pushing in more sediment.
“Normally, you don’t like to see excavators working in the riparian zone of your wild and scenic river, with new salmon runs returning,” says Rick Till with Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
“In this case, it’s pretty exciting to see a former dam site being restored, and the riparian area being re-contoured, in preparation for re-planting, and restoring a natural river ecosystem.”
“Kayaking into the head end of the former Northwestern Lake, and seeing some ‘s-curve’ Class 2 rapids starting to carve out…and definitely cutting up a lot further up the river than I had anticipated,” Ben Kofoed, who guides rafting trips on the White Salmon out of the town of Husum, points out.
“A lot of people are going to want to come see those changes.” But Kofoed and area environmentalists say there are other changes people are not going to want to see: like housing development.
“I feel that there’s a place for development, but perhaps the river corridor is less such a place.”
Klickitat County has proposed reclassifying hundreds of acres upstream of where Condit Dam came out, into two-acre parcels.
Washington’s Department of Ecology estimates that if it’s built to capacity, the area’s population would grow from less than 1000 to more than 11,000 people.
Supporters of the plan say the towns of Husum and BZ Corner need the zoning changes. County officials started looking at zoning changes years before the dam came out.
Jake Anderson with the Husum BZ Corner community council, says “The original zoning for the Husum BZ area was done in the early ‘80s. And since that time, there hasn’t been a single update to that zone. So it’s pretty much been stuck in 1983, 1984.”
Anderson says setbacks would keep any development away from the riverbank. But the zoning change is much more than an overdue update to environmentalists.
Pat Arnold, with Friends of the White Salmon River, says the changes would reverse the river’s progress.
“Especially distressing to see them coming along right now, when Condit has just come out, and we have the opportunity and the responsibility to take the steps to protect habitat, not to injure it.”
Environmentalists say the zoning changes affect a federal Wild and Scenic River area, and elk and deer habitat. But the biggest conflict is over water.
Jake Anderson with the Husum BZ community council says there is plenty of water. “We are a truly water-rich basin. We get summer flows all year long. Where we live, we get an amazing amount of water, we get up close to 40 inches of rain a year.”
Walking along the banks of the White Salmon River, close to BZ Corner, there’s water everywhere. It seeps out of the ground and cascades down to the river.
Environmental attorney, Ralph Bloemers says it’s wet now, but not in the summer. And that could cause problems for migrating salmon when they reach the river’s tributaries.
“You know, right now, you hear a lot of water running through the system. It’s double, almost triple the flow of when people run this river in the summer. But the tributaries go way, way down from what they are right now. So if you have a lot of wells in proximity to the tributaries, the experts say you’re going to have a degree or two degree change in temperature, which is a significant change for wild fish trying to return and use that as habitat.”
Bloemers has appealed Klickitat County’s zoning proposal. The county commissioners and the planning director said they could not comment for this story because of that appeal. The county attorney didn’t return calls.
Bloemers suggests the fish aren’t the only ones that’d lose water, if the zoning changes went through, and houses followed.
The Fordyce Water Association controls a large water service in the area. Fordyce is mentioned in the proposal, but the association’s president, Paul Poknis, says he hasn’t heard from the county.
This is what he would’ve told them: “That we were at our physical capacity, and we couldn’t be counted on to supply water for what they had in mind.”
The Husum BZ proposal also discusses having new homes dig small, unpermitted wells, as allowed under state law.
Washington Ecology Department officials warned the county a year and a half ago, that using exempt wells across the proposal area “may go beyond the Legislature’s intent.”
In more recent messages, state regulators are still urging the county to thoroughly evaluate water availability and water rights in the area.
Back along the White Salmon River, Ralph Bloemers says using wells – and having sewage treated on site – is an unhealthy mix.
“You’re going to potentially have increases in nitrate concentrations at the edge of those drainfields, which would be very close to the river. And potentially, with all the new development, because there’s no more available water in Fordyce, people are going to have to drill shallow wells, into the shallow aquifer, so there is a potential impact of nitrate loading.”
The county hired Aspect Consulting to look at hydrology. Aspect’s report found problems could be avoided or mitigated.
Environmentalists hired their own hydro-geologist, Mark Yinger. He’s the same person Pacific Power hired, after the Condit Dam came out and reduced well-water levels. Yinger says the Aspect Report has two major flaws.
Number one, he says it mistakenly contends that shallow and deep aquifers aren’t connected. Yinger says he’s seen deep wells affect shallow ones, firsthand.
And, Yinger says the Aspect Report improperly manipulated data on septic tanks and drinking water.
“They just grossly oversized the septic drainfields in order to dilute the waste with rainwater, to essentially get numbers that were in the favor of their client, the county.”
Yinger serves on the Oregon State Board of Geologist Examiners. He filed a complaint against the two authors of the Aspect hydrology report, with the geology board in Washington.
In a written statement, Aspect Consulting stood by the report. In an e-mail, Aspect President Tim Flynn disagreed with both Yinger’s analysis and his official complaint. He says Yinger “mischaracterizes our analysis and our findings.”
Jake Anderson with the area’s community council says environmentalists shouldn’t oppose the effort to plan for growth. “The biggest problem I can say, I ever have, is when you come in, and you buy your slice of heaven, and then you want to shut the door behind you, on everybody else.”
Anderson says without a growth plan, big developers could get one-off zoning changes, and that could be worse.
Pat Arnold, with Friends of the White Salmon River, agrees that planning is needed — but not the way the county is doing it. “It’s even more pressing now, with the removal of Condit Dam, and the potential for the first time in 100 years for wild salmon, anadromous fish to come up the river. It makes the protection of the watershed as urgent as you can imagine.”
Environmentalists expect to debate the Husum BZ Plan in Washington Superior Court.
(This was first reported for OPB News.)
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