SKAMANIA COUNTY — The calm surface of Kwoneesum Lake in the early-morning sun reflects the surrounding trees like a mirror.
However beautiful the lake might be, it is a reminder of the past, when dams were built with little thought to salmon, wildlife and the environment.
This 10-acre lake in western Skamania County is only a 20-minute drive from downtown Washougal. It is expected to vanish in the next two to three years with the removal of Kwoneesum Dam, which has prevented Wildboy Creek from meandering and nourishing the land downstream for more than a half-century.
Removing the 45-foot-high earthen dam with a concrete apron will allow salmon and steelhead to return to 6 1/2 miles of spawning and rearing habitat in the creek’s upper reaches and its smaller feeder streams.
The Columbia Land Trust is purchasing 1,300 acres along Wildboy Creek. Once the sale closes March 27, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe can proceed with an arduous engineering, permitting and demolition process to remove the dam and free Wildboy Creek from its dirt, rock, concrete and rebar straitjacket.
“It will make a big difference,” said Cherie Kearney, forest conservation director for the Columbia Land Trust, as she stood on the dam Tuesday morning. “This is one of the most popular and beloved projects.”
Camp Fire Girls, an organization today known as Camp Fire, built the dam in 1965 to create a picturesque lake for a camp along its southeastern shore, where girls could swim, canoe and sail, all within an hour’s drive of the Portland metro area.
The primitive camp, a little less than 1,000 feet in elevation, included tent platforms and other basic structures before it closed in 1986. The land was sold to Longview Fibre Co., and eventually to its current owner, Weyerhaeuser Co.
Earlier this year, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust awarded a $450,000 grant to the Columbia Land Trust to help pay for the purchase. The land trust, which declined to name the purchase price, is tapping grants and raising other dollars. It also has obtained a three-year loan so that the purchase can close this month.
The Murdock Trust was created through the will of Melvin Jack Murdock, a philanthropist, investor and co-founder of Tektronix. Since its inception 45 years ago, the trust has awarded more than 6,700 grants totaling in excess of $1 billion.
“Conserving Wildboy Creek and the area around it is good for local communities because it supports clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation and ecologically sound timber harvests,” Steve Moore, the Murdock Trust’s executive director, said in a statement. “The Cowlitz Indian Tribe is deeply involved. We are excited that the tribe and the land trust are working together to ensure this project is successful, and we are grateful to play a small role in seeing this project come to fruition.”
Wildboy Creek flows south and empties into the West Fork Washougal River, just outside the Columbia Land Trust’s pending 1,300-acre purchase. The west fork connects to the main Washougal River and on to the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean.
Washougal is a priority watershed for the land trust and other organizations. Clark County, in a 2010 stream health report, evaluated the 10 watersheds covering the county. Only the Washougal was judged to be in “good” health, with six watersheds in “fair” condition and the other three in “poor” shape.
Peter Barber, restoration ecologist for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, grew up swimming and fishing in the Washougal River and knows its waters well.
“The Washougal River is more than just a location that I’m familiar with,” Barber said in a write-up posted on the Columbia Land Trust’s website. “It’s like a good friend you’ve known all your life. It’s my home away from home, and I dearly wish to see it in a healthier state.”
Barber, in an email to The Columbian, said that restoring plants, animals and landscapes is a critical part of the tribe’s culture.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the dam will be removed because of uncertain timelines for obtaining grants and government permits, he said.
“Our earliest expectation is that we will begin the process of removing the dam in the summer of 2022 and construction will be complete in 2023,” Barber wrote in his email. “This may be delayed another year due to permitting requirements.”
Current estimates indicate that the project would cost $3.5 million, he said.
“The tribe has been very successful at competitive grant writing,” he wrote in his email. “We have applied for several state and federal grant programs and have utilized foundation funds to develop and design the proposed dam removal project.”
Lots of water
The biggest demolition challenge will be the water and sediments in Kwoneesum Lake, Barber said. The lake holds an estimated 35.5 million gallons, enough water to fill more than 50 Olympic-sized pools.
“The three tributaries that flow into the existing reservoir will be temporarily rerouted to pass clean cold water downstream of the project site and the dam,” Barber wrote in his email. “The controlled and slow drawdown of the reservoir will be accomplished with installation of (a) series of pumps. Water quality will be closely managed and monitored.”
An estimated 20,000 cubic yards of material from the dam will be disposed of on adjacent land. Some of its rock will be used to place woody debris in the creek channel to improve fish habitat. Sediments from behind the dam will be dried, blended with native soil and spread across the drained reservoir as part of riparian restoration.
Barber said the tribe is working with Parr Excellence of Bingen. The engineering and restoration firm’s website says its employees have experience removing dozens of dams over the past 20 years.
Ian Sinks, stewardship director for the Columbia Land Trust, said his organization will support the tribe in removing the dam, recontouring the stream channel, planting riparian vegetation and adding habitat diversity.
“We will be active partners, both in technical review as the land owner and in bringing our expertise to the land restoration process,” he said.
Although the Columbia Land Trust has managed bigger land acquisitions, this project represents a first for the trust.
“We’ve done dike removals and intertidal flood reconnections,” he said. “This is our first dam removal.”
Columbia Land Trust also has plans for managing and restoring the 1,300-acre site, which has been heavily logged in areas and is far from pristine old-growth forest.
“We can’t afford that,” Kearney said Tuesday morning. “They aren’t available. By and large, old-growth forests are on our public lands.”
“It’s a reflection of that past forest management,” Sinks said about the property’s current condition. “We will slowly and incrementally move it to a longer rotation and a more diverse forest.”
The land trust will continue to cut some trees, more thinning than large-scale logging, to improve forest habitat and provide a modest revenue stream for additional land stewardship, he said.
The 1,300 acres are not open for public use and will not be for several years. The land trust already is discussing how the property someday could be available for hiking, biking, fishing and maybe even a small amount of hunting, Sinks said, adding that the trust typically does not allow vehicle access, camping and fires on its land.
Kearney, speaking on the shores of Kwoneesum Lake, said she expects migrating salmon and steelhead will quickly find their way up Wildboy Creek once the dam is gone, similar to what happened following Condit Dam’s removal on the White Salmon River in 2011 and 2012.
Kwoneesum Dam causes pooled water to warm before it tumbles over the dam’s spillway, a negative contribution to the cold, clean water that salmon need.
“When it goes back to cold, flowing water, that is a contribution to the system,” Kearney said. “That’s what we don’t have.”
Kearney expects the site will look vastly different 20 to 30 years from now.
“It should all look natural once (Kwoneesum Dam) is all gone and replanted,” she said. “The goal would be, in a generation, people would not know there was a dam, not know there was a camp.”