December 20, 2010 - FERC approves Condit Dam removal

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's a story you've read before.  The places and names here may be different, but you know the basic plot line.

In the early part of the twentieth century, industrial production was booming.  New technologies enabled revolutionary advances in manufacturing.  Because these mills needed power -- even more power than the mechanical hydropower their ancestors once consumed -- utilities turned to hydroelectricity to provide a steady stream of affordable power.

Years passed, and the nation's electric grid grew up around the dam and the mill.  New generation resources and transmission capabilities made other electricity sources viable.  Environmental, safety and electric reliability laws grew up too.  By the late twentieth century, the dam owner faced millions of dollars in expenses in order to maintain and upgrade the dam and its infrastructure to remain in regulatory compliance.  The dam owner holds out for a while, but ultimately concludes that it is not feasible for it to invest the capital required to complete the fish passage project and other upgrades.  This leaves dam removal as the only option.

This tale could be populated with a number of characters.  For example, the story of the removal of the Fort Halifax Dam on the Sebasticook River in Maine fits within these plot lines.  Yet the main character in today's tale is the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington.  FERC has now approved the Condit Dam for removal.

The White Salmon River joins the Columbia a short distance below the Condit Dam, across from Hood River, Oregon.  (Map lovers: here's a link to a map of the area.)  The Condit Hydroelectric Project was built in 1913 by Northwestern Electric Company to provide power to industry.  The Crown Willamette Paper Company in Camas was its anchor customer, with additional power being sent across the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon on transmission lines.  In 1947, current owner PacifiCorp acquired the dam to generate power to serve its load.

Currently, the Condit Dam is rated at 14.7 MW of nameplate capacity.  Prior to the removal order, PacifiCorp had considered increasing its capacity to 15.8 MW of renewable power.

The dam's fate took a turn in 1996, when the federal government mandates that PacifiCorp install fish ladders and perform modifications for environmental compliance.  PacifiCorp deemed the modifications too expensive and applied for decommissioning. Currently, the project is operating under annual license extensions, although FERC has now approved its removal.

The ultimate punch line of the order: "We find that surrender with the removal of the dam and other project property except for the powerhouse is appropriate. We conclude, based on the record of this case, that the benefits of dam removal to anadromous fish, wildlife, and whitewater recreation outweigh the costs associated with the loss of Condit dam and Northwestern Lake."

The FERC order was the last key regulatory approval needed for removal of the Condit Dam.  Removal is slated to begin in 2011.  This places the Condit Dam on a list of dams slated for removal including the Great Works Dam in Veazie, Maine and the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams in Washington.

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