It has been almost four months since Condit Dam was intentionally breached by blasting a tunnel through its concrete base. As much has happened since then, here are some notes from the field.
Amongst other events and trials, local media has remarked that residents have been ‘spooked‘ by rampant, colossal erosion sloughing away their backyards and collapsing former piers and boat docks. Pipes buried in the sediments have been shunted apart by torsional pulls of the shifting ground. With the 92-acre reservoir drained, the water table has plummeted to what it used to be, leaving residential wells suddenly dry. It may be difficult to translate to all constituents why this might be a part of a ‘good’ thing. As dryly expressed in the governmental document on this subject, Dam removal: Issues, Considerations, Controversies (Library of Congress Congressional Research Service, 2006):
“One of the most consistent issues raised in discussions of dam removal is concern about the appearance of a drained reservoir after dam removal. Some of these concerns reflect personal preference — one person’s appreciation of still water views over a flowing river or vice versa. Other concerns may reflect a lack of understanding about how river systems function…”
Meanwhile the former stash of sediments behind the dam continue to make their quasi-forecasted descent downstream. Massive heaps of courser sediment far above the dam remain, as predicted. Anachronistic cairns havesuddenly appeared in the riparian landscape: a forest of well-preserved tree stumps cut down a century ago. They look much the same as they did on the day they were cut. We had no idea they would still be there. These stumps provide an anthro-geologic guide to the terrain. If one cannot see them, they are yet to be unearthed from what remains of 1.8 million cubic meters of sediment still finding its way downstream, or not.
What is happening on the White Salmon River comes across as a captivating mixture of predictive guesswork, the unknown, and unknown unknowns. These educated guesses and unknowns were in play as far back as the dam’s settlement agreement and the initial brainstorming sessions to engineer the flood event. As theory and plans went to action, the mess of the real was encountered. Take the blast event itself: although it was predicted that it would take about 6 hours for the reservoir to drain, it was empty in just over one. The designed deluge was more powerful than what was calculated (14,000 cubic feet per second). During the first hour of the event, over half of the River’s erosional work, accumulated over a century, was mobilized downstream all at once. Sediment concentrations below the dam were much higher than anticipated by the Sediment Assessment, Stability and Management Plan, one of the technical manuals assembled for this event.
After the breach, in-water turbidity measurements rapidly exceeded the upper limits of detection of probes that were installed in the river (4,000 nephalometric units), and remained at those undetectable levels for two weeks. Monitoring crews had to resort to old-fashioned methods of precarious hand collection to determine that the water might have contained a peak sediment load of 50,000 – 100,000 parts per million. In the hours and days after the breach, courser masses of sediment continued to slough off their stone foundations in a cascade of ‘landslides, mass wasting, rotational failures, tensional cracking and slumping.’
The former assemblage behind the dam is in motion and activated, begging the question of where will the masses of liberated particles congeal? Where and how will they be integrated and co-opted downstream?
Just over three miles downstream of the now holey Condit Dam, the White Salmon River merges with the much larger Columbia River. Here the gravitational onslaught of sediments has met with the slack water from the Bonneville Dam’s 48 mile long, 537,000 acre ft. capacity reservoir. Some of the sediments are forming a new migratory delta landscape. On the day of the breach, USGS scientists attempted to measure the discharge at the confluence with the Columbia. Their plan was abandoned when it was determined that surface water was actually flowing up the White Salmon River. This counter intuitive condition was due to “a powerful current flowing along the bed of the White Salmon River out into the Columbia River, consistent with a high bedload concentration and a density greater than that of clear water.” Seven days after the breach, buoys detected that the head of the sediment plume had arrived within the locks of the Bonneville Dam, reaching the limit of its journey and its new place of anthropogenic aggregation. It had jumped from one reservoir to another. Bonneville Dam, a federal dam managed by the Army Corp of Engineers, generates power to places as distant as southern California and is not going anywhere any time soon.
I write of these events from being out there and from reading the 90-day Post-Breach Preliminary Sediment Behavior Report [i], produced by PacifiCorp as required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This report and others like it are their own breed of vanguard design literature, provisional field manuals for de-engineering large infrastructure and morphing that infrastructure into something that’s vastly different.
In-situ experiments like Condit’s explosive demise reconfigure the collective coalesced by a massive wall of concrete. The huge pool of still water is gone. What was held in compiled torpor for up to a century was suddenly jettisoned across landscapes like a geological slurry. In a pulse of fluvial magma, destructive force was transmuted into a regenerative process. Landscape experiments such as these go by the catchall designation of ‘adaptive management’. We might also construe such endeavors as the delegation and recruitment of entropy, whereby dredging becomes co-collaborative land and river maker:
[Above: 2011 aerial of Northwestern Lake less than two weeks after the dam was breached with a superimposed 1912 survey made just prior to completion of the dam. Image stitched together from PacifiCorp's decommissioning documents]
Cameras shielded within metal housings were attached to the top of Condit Dam prior to its breach. These and other cameras are fixed within the surrounding landscape and trained onto various shifting terrains, like the drained reservoir and the dam itself. They are part of time-lapse documentation and various research projects that will provide meticulous archives of the processes of sediment dispersal and management, the complete erasure and burial of the dam, and the assisted succession of riparian and upland plant communities. Combined with new LiDAR flyovers, detailed in-the-field monitoring and the progress reports required by FERC, new data landscapes are being produced. A body of instrumental theory and techniques is in development.
These in-situ works are providing new forms of experience and techniques for associating with the peculiar collectives we have inadvertently created. Would we have considered such courses of action plausible and generative decades ago when ecology and ecosystems were more based on cybernetic systems thinking – a model premised on balance, controllability and homeostasis?[ii] That model has been superseded by one where disturbance and entropy are accepted as stochastic norms brought about by humans, non-humans or both. A sense of control is still present, but in new and expanded forms. Here we are subject to the forces of water and the enigmatic behavior of huge repressed swarms of particles.
There is a peculiar appeal to situations like this, landscapes that are being redrawn or thrust into an entirely different trajectory. It could be anything from a volcanic eruption to a twinkling New Urbanist development. It’s the effort of transformation itself – its process – that is intriguing. This brings to mind Bruno Latour’s critique of both “nature” and of the “social” as existing a priori, as taken-for-granted given substances of sorts. Rather, he contends, both are constantly being negotiated, remade or forcefully sustained by a shifting multitude of participants, human and non. And further, the distinction between these two collectives doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as we can see in the former reservoir of Condit Dam.
One of the most useful aspects of actor-network-theory (I think) is its investigative emphasis on change and transition. During such times, we get a better glimpse of what the social is composed of, its peculiar ‘web of associations’ [iii]. When situations drastically change or things quite functioning nature as given substance evaporates and we are better able to see the diverse and dynamic multitude arduously creating it.
[i] 90-day Post-Breach Preliminary Sediment Behavior Report as well as all decommissioning plans for Condit Dam are available at PacifiCorp’s website
[ii] See Adam Curtis’ documentary “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, Part II: “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”, BBC 2011. Curtis provides an overview of the origin of the ecosystem concept and the various ways it had been deployed.
[iii] In particular, as described in Bruno Latour’s various excursions compiled in Pandora’s Hope, and Stephen Graham’s Disrupted Cities.