Oregon Field Guide: The White Salmon River Runs Free

What happens when a dam disappears and a river returns? Watch this special edition of Oregon Field Guide about the historic removal of Condit Dam.


1859[1]In 2012, the 100 foot-tall Condit Dam was removed from the White Salmon River in southeast Washington, making it the largest dam in the world ever removed. The goal was simple: Restore habitat for threatened salmon. This first-ever project tested the ingenuity of those tasked with the massive project. But it may also represent a turning point. In a region built on hydropower, is removing dams for threatened salmon the new norm?

Producer & Director of Photography – Andy Maser
Editor – Nick Fisher
Associate Producer – Hayden Peters
Additional Video – Michael Bendixen, Hayden Peters, Nick Fisher, Todd Sonflieth, Brian Lippy, Andy Johnson-Laird & Sylvain Chancel
Stock Material – Steve Stampfli, Zach Zoller, Ralph Bowman, Ryan Scott, Kevin Felts, Sam Drevo, Oregon Historical Society, Daniel Dancer, PacifiCorp,
Special Thanks – Jaco Klinkenberg, Wet Planet Whitewater, Heather Herbeck, Sam Drevo, Todd Olson of PacifiCorp, Tom Gaunt of PacifiCorp, Rod Engle of USFWS, Larry Moran of JR Merit, Tony Washines of Yakima Nation, Ed Jahn, American Rivers, American Whitewater

Appeared in episode: The White Salmon River Runs Free: Breaching the Condit Dam

For more information:

Andy Maser Films

White Salmon Timelapse Project

River ownership proves murky

Dave Merrick has fished the Deschutes River since moving to Bend in the 1980s.

Although Merrick grew to know the river well, it was more difficult to figure out who owned the riverbed and riverbanks — where members of the public could go, and where only private property owners could tread.

“What the rules are has always been a foggy one on the Deschutes, frankly,” said Merrick, 46, manager of Fly and Field Outfitters in Bend.

In 2005, the Oregon Attorney General’s Office issued a legal opinion that anyone can walk on a riverbank as long as it is below the ordinary high-water mark of the river. That has not prevented some private property owners from shooing anglers off sections of the river.

“Certainly, I’ve had instances — I know some of our guides have — where the boat’s anchored 10 feet off the bank in the water, folks are wading and fishing, and they’re being told to get out of there,” Merrick said. “I grew up around here, and in my lifetime, it’s just always been that way.”

Without clear rules, Merrick plays it safe.

“Having guided the river for a lot of years, my rule has always been unless it’s listed on the state’s navigable waters list, you’re not allowed on the banks on private property,” Merrick said.

A state task force could clarify the rights of recreational river users if it produces a bill for the 2013 legislative session, but the group will not likely weigh in on who owns the beds and banks of many Oregon rivers.

“The state has this claim to rivers that are navigable, but no one knows what they are,” said Jennie Bricker, a lawyer in Portland who represents property owners on questions of waterway ownership. Bricker is also on the state task force trying to address recreational use of rivers not designated as navigable.

Further complicating matters, many riverfront property lines extend to the middle of a river but the deeds that back that up might be very old and inexact. They can also require much research to locate.

“Early surveying in the Oregon territory and the state of Oregon was done by chains and rods, which is not very accurate when you’re dealing with topographical changes,” said Liz Dickson, a lawyer in Bend who does extensive work on land use and water law. “And in the case of rivers and streams, there often isn’t a way to place a rod in the middle of the river, so oftentimes, surveyors were guessing as to the location of boundary lines.”

Once a river is deemed navigable, the state takes ownership of the riverbed and the public can walk or camp on the riverbank. The state has declared sections of 12 rivers as navigable. In 2005, the state recognized a 174-mile stretch of the John Day River as navigable as the result of a lawsuit by the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. The group sued after a fisherman was ticketed for trespassing.

In 2010, a bill to clarify river usage rights for boaters, anglers and others ran into opposition from private property owners, and instead, state lawmakers created a task force to work on other approaches to the issue.

Secretary of State Kate Brown said Friday there are likely up to 200 more rivers for which the state has yet to determine navigability.

“But that doesn’t prevent Oregonians from using these waterways,” Brown said. Brown worked on navigability issues for more than a decade as a state lawmaker and is now involved with the task force.

Since 2010, the task force has been trying to come up with a set of rules on which both property owners and river users can agree.

“We’ve been working collaboratively for the last year and a half to come up with a consensus or a general agreement about some legislation, and the route we were taking is looking at what we would call an expanded water trails program,” Brown said. “Generally speaking, a water trail is a portion of a river or shoreline that’s been mapped for use by river users. … So there would be designated spots for accessing the river.”

“The goal is for the rules of the river to be very clear for the river users and the property owners,” Brown said. “Right now we’ve got some people playing Monopoly and some people playing Scrabble, and we’d like to get everyone on the same page.”

The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department already established these trails on rivers recognized as navigable, and future legislation could do the same on rivers not on the navigable list, Brown said.

“I’m hopeful we’ll introduce legislation next session, but we’re still in a working phase,” Brown said.

A system of water trails still would not resolve who owns the land under Oregon’s rivers not designated as navigable. It also would not prevent people from requesting that the state research whether specific rivers are navigable.

Walt Bammann, a Roseberg man who described himself as an avid whitewater enthusiast and membership secretary of the North West Rafters Association, said questions about river ownership made it difficult for people to float down the Metolius River.

“For years, our rafting club would float the river,” Bammann said. In the 1990s, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs began asserting their ownership rights to the center of the river.

“Any boater that launched at some point would effectively be on their side of the river,” Bammann said. “It’s a real murky matter. … Whether the Metolius was ever navigable is a gray area, as (with) many rivers.”

In some situations, a lack of public access along riverbanks puts rafters in danger. For example, rafters and other boaters often need to portage around a waterfall or other dangerous spot on a river, Bammann said.

Bammann and Merrick acknowledged that some river users act in ways that frustrate property owners, whether by urinating and littering on a riverbank or trespassing to reach an ideal fishing spot.

Bricker said she disagrees with the 2005 attorney general’s legal opinion that opened rivers to the public below the ordinary high-water line. The opinion expanded rights for recreational river users, but it shrank the rights of private property owners, Bricker said. Bricker likes the idea of water trails because they could result in restrooms and other facilities “to make it easier for the public to use those segments of the rivers, and also take some of the burden off property owners.”

“When people are floating a river, it’s not always clear when you’re leaving public property and entering private property, and there aren’t always places to stop and, for example, go to the bathroom,” Bricker said.

The controversy does not seemed headed for resolution soon.

“This is a very emotional subject,” Bammann said.

Navigable rivers in Oregon
When Oregon achieved statehood in 1859, the state took ownership of all rivers that were used, or could have been used, in their natural condition to transport people and goods. However, the state did not identify which rivers met these criteria and were navigable.

For a river to be listed as navigable, it must go through a lengthy and typically contentious bureaucratic process. This means the state might own the Deschutes River and many others, but no one has gone through the process to establish it.

Source: The Bulletin ©2012

Deschutes River Subbasin Summary

The only impoundment created by a hydroelectric facility in the upper subbasin is Mirror Pond on the Deschutes River within the City of Bend. Mirror Pond has become one of the primary attractions of Bend as a park for a variety of recreation and local events.

However, this impoundment has created a settling basin for sediment being carried in the river and has been dredged on one occasion at a high cost both in dollars and environment disruption of the stream channel. A smaller impoundment created by the North Canal dam downstream of Mirror Pond has also created a settling basin for sediment and loss of the natural stream channel (ODFW 1996d).

Full Document: Deschutes River Subbasin Draft

Critics say hydro plant should be turned off

The aging power plant on the Deschutes River in downtown Bend is a money-loser, a fish-killer and an eyesore, and the community would be better off if it were shut down, critics of a plan to relicense the facility said Wednesday.

However, PacifiCorp officials said the hydro facility that ushered the electric age into Bend eight decades ago can be revitalized and made to safely churn out electricity for decades to come.

“It is old and tired, but there is nothing to preclude it from operations for another 30 years,” said Randy Landolt, a member of PacifiCorp’s hydro division.

PacifiCorp, the parent company of Pacific Power, is seeking a new 30-year federal license for the so-called Bend Project, the dam and power plant built by the now-defunct Bend Water, Light & Power Co. on the east bank of the Deschutes in 1910.

PacifiCorp officials held an all-day meeting in Bend Wednesday to gather comments of various local, state and federal agencies. The government leaders urged the utility to either retire the power plant or make major improvements in the facility.

Critics of the relicensing plan insisted that the utility take steps to reverse longstanding environmental problems, including damage to fish runs, problems created by ice buildup behind the dam and the sedimentation of Mirror Pond.

However, utility officials warned that the small hydroelectric project—which generates enough power to provide electricity to only about 400 homes—is not profitable enough to merit spending millions of dollars on fish screens and other improvements.

“This project cannot in and of itself support every improvement that people want to see,” Landolt said.

PacifiCorp officials sparred with Deschutes County Commissioner Tom Throop and other local government leaders over the question of whether the power plant is responsible for the heavy sediment buildup in Mirror Pond.

The sediment, which comes from eroding banks and other sources on the upper Deschutes River, is deposited in Mirror Pond when the river is slowed at the PacifiCorp dam.

“If the dam wasn’t there, and the power plant wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be a sedimentation problem in Mirror Pond,” Throop said.

“If the dam wasn’t there,” Landolt replied, “there wouldn’t be a Mirror Pond.”

PacifiCorp also was criticized for concluding that fish screens and other measures that would allow fish passage of the dam were simply too expensive to construct, given the limited production at the power plant.

A PacifiCorp study last year concluded that about 40,000 fish—including 1,200 to 1,400 rainbow trout—are swept into the powerhouse turbines each year.

However, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists said the study occurred at the tail end of a four-year drought, when fish populations were at perhaps an all-time low. In fact, biologist Ted Fies said, the number of fish that enter the powerhouse could be more than 100,000 a year.

Rich Kruger, another ODFW biologist, noted that a major effort is under way to improve fisheries in the upper Deschutes, including the stretch of river in the urban area.

“There is a lot of money being poured into this region to improve things. This is of a major importance to us,” Krugar said. “The Department (of Fish and Wildlife) is not going to back down on this.”

Dennis Canty, a National Park Service analyst, noted that PacifiCorp admitted that in the future the Bend Project will cost more to operate than it will produce in revenues. He said the power plant should be retired and the turbines removed, allowing for fish passage.

“This is a fundamentally inefficient project,” Canty said. “I don’t think the public is well served by pursuing licensing for another 30 years. How can you justify this?”

Landolt said PacifiCorp wanted to relicense the powerhouse because it would cost the utility more to shut it down than to keep it operating. “The alternative is a major capital expenditure for retirement with absolutely no revenues to offset it,” he said.

PacifiCorp’s application for relicensing will be presented to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in late December. The agency, which must balance the need for power against the environmental costs of operating the plant, could take several years to issue a ruling on the matter.

The Bend Project’s current license expires in December 1993.

Source: The Bulletin ©1991

More Hawks Go Fishing In Mirror Pond

 Vandevert is firm

Ospreys flit happily over water, unaware of condemnation

Apparently ignoring the edict of Dr. J.C. Vandevert, state game commissioner, who has sentenced all ospreys on the Deschutes river here to death, two more fish hawks were wheeling and darting over the mirror pond in Bend today. When announcement was made of the game commissioner’s plans for exterminating the hawks yesterday only two were known to be fishing in the river here.

Dr. Vandevert remained firm in his purpose to have the ospreys killed, in spite of the protest of the Oregon Audubon society, voiced yesterday by President W.A. Elliott. Just when the sentence of death will be carried out, Dr. Vandevert did not say.

Corrects Report

“There is one thing I would like to correct,” Dr. Vandevert said today. “Yesterday The Bulletin quoted me as having said that the fish hawks were killing ducks. What I said was that it had been reported to me by several Bend sportsmen that the hawks have been molesting the ducks, and I have never claimed to know.

“I do know, however, that they are killing fish- the sate’s fish. The game commission is determined to protect the fish that it plants in the rivers and lakes. That is why we are going to have the ospreys killed.”

Dr. Vandevert declared his belief that the fish hawks are feeding on trout, rather than white fish, was due to observation of the habits of the birds. They do not dive very far under the water, he explained, apparently waiting until a fish rises for a fly or other insect and then pouncing on the fish as it reaches the surface of the water. White fish, he pointed out, are usually found on the bottom of the river, in deep water, which would indicate that the birds are after trout, not white fish.

Three Laws Ignored

Dr. Vandevert’s decision to have the ospreys executed was made in the face of three sets of laws which would forbid the destruction of the birds. One is the Oregon law which makes every incorporated city a bird refuge, with not even game birds legal prey at any time. The second is that part of the Oregon code which protects the osprey, among other birds not listed as game birds or “outlaws”, at all times and places. The third is the Bend ordinance which prohibits the use of firearms within the city limits, under heavy penalty.

Dr. Vandevert believes that the right of the game commission to protect game fish carries with it the right to kill ospreys if the molest game fish, he indicated.

“Another thing I would like to have known in connection with this matter is that I have arranged to have 25,000 trout planted in the Descutes at Bend,” Dr. Vandevert declared today. “If those fish can’t be protected against fish hawks, king-fishers and fish ducks, I certainly won’t allow them to be planted here. And I believe most of the sportsmen will back me up in that stand.”

Pelicans Are Cited

The contention of those who have been seeking to have the ospreys protected is that the osprey is just as much a part of the wild life of Oregon as the rainbow trout. The argument has been advanced that a great many Bend citizens do not fish, but are more interested in observing wild life on the mirror pond than catching trout. These people, it has been argued, are entitled to consideration, just as the sportsmen are.

Supporters of this viewpoint have frequently mentioned the case of the white pelicans of the Klamath lakes. These birds, recognized as fish eaters, have been given strict protection by the residents of Klamath Falls, with the result that Klamath Falls has become famous as the city of the Pelicans. The same situation, it is stated, applies on Bend’s mirror pond and includes not only swans, wild ducks, white mallards, and geese, but also the ospreys, king-fishers and fish ducks which have shared in the interest of the community.


Source: Bend Bulletin

Fishways Work To Start Soon

Construction Planned to Open Entire Deschutes to Salmon–
Screening of Ditches Ordered to Save Trout of Central Oregon.


Preparatory to the installation of fish ladders for salmon in the Deschutes river, provided for by appropriation by the last legislature, Master Fish Warden R. E. Clanton and State Game Warden Carl D. Shoemaker will, in company with Deputy District Warden W. O. Hadley, make an inspection of the fishway sites about the end of the present month, Mr. Hadley announced here this morning. They will also take steps to have the ladder at the C. O. I. dam thoroughly overhauled.

The building of fish ladders at Cline falls, Steelhead falls and Big falls has been advocated for several years past by Mr. Hadley, who saw the need of increasing the available spawning grounds for salmon, and at the same time filling the Deschutes river with the great food fish. The construction of ladders will in effect, remove the natural obstacles which have kept the salmon from coming into the upper river.

High Water Hinders.

High water has prevented a careful study of conditions at the falls, necessary before the exact location and specifications for the ladders can be decided on, but by the end of the month it is believed that the river will be low enough to permit an inspection by state officials. Construction is to start shortly afterward. One ladder large enough to permit the passage of salmon has already been constructed by the Bend Water, Light & Power Co. at the power dam in Bend, and Mr. Hadley expressed himself as being well satisfied with the new fishway.

Another way in which the resources of Central Oregon’s streams may be protected is by the careful screening of irrigation ditches, and within a few days the state ditch superintendent will arrive in Bend to look after this phase of the work. Probably the greatest need is on the Squaw Creek ditch, Mr. Hadley says.

New Law Important.

Mr. Hadley emphasized particularly the need for sportsmen to familiarize themselves with the 1919 fish and game laws. …

A number of copies of the synopsis of the 1919 laws have been left at The Bulletin office, and may be secured here by sportsmen as long as the supply last.

Source: Bend-Bulletin-5-22-1919

New Fish Ladder is Being Built


In compliance with a request from the state fish and game commission, the Bend Water, Light and Power Co. yesterday commenced work on a large fish ladder at their power dam in this city. The new work is necessitated by the plan for making the river open to salmon coming up from the Columbia to spawn, and the fishway already installed at the dam was insufficient in size to allow the passage of the big fish.

The ladder now under construction will cost in the neighborhood of $500, Manager T. H. Foley estimates.

Source: Bend-Bulletin-5-01-1919-p5


Stock Stream

Chief Deputy Game Warden Brought 35,000 Fry to Bend Monday Night and Placed Them In River — Others to be Supplied Next Year

The Deschutes river today contains 35,000 more fish than it did on Monday. The reason for the rapid increase is that 35 cans of fish fry were placed in the stream Monday night by State officials.

Chief Deputy Came Warden T. J. Craig and Assistant H. W. Trembath arrived Monday evening with the young fish and the vessels containing them were at once loaded on a truck and taken to the Sisemore place above town where they were liberated. The fish are steelhead salmon trout and were brought from the Clackamas hatchery. The shipment came through unusually well, none of the little fish dying. They are very small now but In a year’s time will be from six to eight inches long. When they have attained their growth they weigh six or seven pounds.

Mr. Craig assured Secretary Sawhill of the Commercial Club that next spring 50,000 Eastern brook trout would be brought here to stock the river, the fry being too small to turn loose In the open stream now. He also said that enough lake trout to stock Paulina lake would be furnished by the state if transportation for them from Bend to the lake was guaranteed.

Messrs Craig and Trombath left yesterday morning.

Fish To Stock River

The waters of the Deschutes River, although already full of Dolly Vardens and redsides, are to be stocked with more fish, making the stream an even greater paradise for the angler. Through the efforts of the Commercial Club, State Game Warden W. L. Finely has allotted 100,000 English brook trout fry to Bend, to be placed in the river here.

These young fish were hatched at a State hatchery, and will be shipped here as soon as freight traffic is begun. F. W. Robinson, general freight agent of the O. W. R. & N., has notified Mr. Finley that free transportation will be furnished over the company’s line for the fish.

Source: Bend Bulletin  

Big Fish For Oregon Car

big-fish-for-oregon-carLast Thursday J. N. Hunter, W. H. Staats, “Bill” Brock and Prince Staats returned from a fishing trip “upriver” in Mr. Staats’s auto. The chief purpose of the expedition was to secure a number of Dolly Varden trout to be sent to the Great Northern Railroad for exhibition purposes in the “Oregon Car,” that is to be sent out through the East, and elsewhere.

The party brought back a dozen huge “Dollies,” many weighing over ten pounds. These were boxed carefully, packed in ice, and sent by express to an expert in Portland who will prepare them for exhibition purposes, in large glass jars especially made for the purpose. These Deschutes “Dollies,” and other trout (as soon as they can be will be the only finny representatives of Oregon used on the publicity car, with the exhibition of some salmon from Astoria, says F. W. Graham, the G. N. representative in charge of the work.

Source: Bend Bulletin