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Pend Oreille County dam removal begins

METALINE FALLS, Wash. – Sullivan Creek will run wild again this fall after being harnessed for over 100 years by the Mill Pond Dam, about 3.5 miles east of Metaline Falls in northern Pend Oreille County.

After years of debate and study, a couple of dozen workers and heavy equipment were on the project site in the Colville National Forest the first week of August. They began work on the two-year project before a planned winter shutdown.

The most significant phase this year is removing the 134-foot-long, 55-foot-high concrete dam. The staged removal will gradually release the 64-acre Mill Pond down Sullivan Creek from September through November.

The project started with staging area preparations and the construction of an upstream electric weir to stop native fish from entering the project area. Water quality monitoring devices were also placed. Channel and upland grading will be done as while the dam is being demolished.

Stream channel grading and restoration work will continue next spring with an increased work force. Most of the work will be done by the fall of 2018 but monitoring after construction will continue until Dec. 2019.

“Fairly unexciting,” said Lloyd Dixon, Seattle City Light project manager, to describe the dam removal. “We are not blowing a hole in it.”

They will remove the concrete and log crib dams in stages with excavators to slowly release the water and sediment built up for years in Mill Pond. They want to wash sediment down stream without causing damage to the environment and existing infrastructure like the Metaline Falls wastewater treatment system.

The project will cost $16 million dollars with a goal of restoring the watershed to pre-dam conditions including better fish habitat with less sediment, increased fish passage and cooler stream temperatures.

The habitat restoration in Sullivan Creek goes from immediately downstream of the dam to where Outlet Creek meets it, approximately 1.7 miles upstream. Outlet Creek comes from Sullivan Lake Dam which is not affected by this project.

The Pend Oreille Public Utility District (PUD) has completed a related $4.2 million project that includes a 48-inch pipe drawing cold water from the depths of Sullivan Lake to Outlet Creek. This cold water flows into Sullivan Creek and decreases temperatures in the summer.

Last look taken

Before the project area was closed to the public on July 17, many people with fond memories of camping and fishing at Mill Pond returned for a last look.

“I didn’t have childhood memories like a lot of people but I know many of them took last trips this summer,” said Tara Leininger, Metaline Falls Mayor and a pastor. “I think it’s one of those things where we are at the mercy of government – it’s going to happen.”

Franklin Pemberton, Forest Service spokesperson, said he has been involved with three dam removal projects. He said he didn’t appreciate the projects at first. But now he has seen the restored areas and the fish habitat improvements, particularly at the Growden Dam removal project in Ferry County.

As more dams become obsolete or have safety issues around the country, it is becoming more common to remove them; there were 72 dams removed in the United States in 2016.

America Whitewater, a kayakers’ organization, played an early role in the legal challenges to remove Mill Pond Dam. Their members are pleased that the project has started and are looking forward to kayaking on Sullivan Creek which will be a beautiful advanced/expert run according to their website.

There will still be times of the year when Sullivan Creek flows will be very low. This is due to water storage agreements for Sullivan Lake that the PUD has with downstream power producers.

“Good memories,” said lifetime resident Kathy Grass about Mill Pond.

She and other residents had voiced their opposition to the proposal since the beginning. Her family had a reunion at the campground this summer. She said they regretfully accept it and will now go to nearby Crescent Lake.

The Forest Service opened 3 campsites there along with 7 new campsites at Sullivan Lake to mitigate the closure.

Mill Pond history

Mill Pond was originally formed when a log crib dam was constructed in 1910 by the Inland Portland Cement Company. A concrete dam was built near it in 1921.

A four-mile-long wooden flume diverted water to a hydroelectric plant downstream. Turn-of-the-century pictures show people walking and riding on the flume to Mill Pond.

This hydroelectric project provided the first power to Metaline Falls. The dam fell into disrepair and the PUD took over in 1959. They considered rebuilding it for many years for power generation, but the small size and increasing relicensing costs made the project unfeasible.

In 2005, the PUD notified the federal government of its intention to surrender the license to operate the project as a power facility.

It was evident that the cost to surrender the license would be expensive for the PUD’s small customer base. Representatives from federal, state, county and Kalispel Tribal governments began meeting. Members of special interest groups and local residents joined them. A mediator coordinated this large collaborative group discussion and eventually public comments were taken and meetings held to gather input.

Seattle City Light offered to pay for the project costs if they could be used for mitigation requirements for their Boundary Hydroelectric Project relicensing. The Federal Energy Regulatory Agency agreed since it focused heavily on native salmonid restoration in the tributaries to the Boundary reservoir. In 2010, a settlement agreement was reached launching planning and permitting.

The high cost of the project has always been an issue with opponents. But this unique arrangement will save Pend Oreille County and Seattle ratepayers, according to both utilities.

Seattle is installing a webcam at the dam site that can be accessed along with other information from the project web site: www.millponddam.com.

Kate Day, Forest Service Hydropower Coordinator, said signs from the historic interpretive trail have been removed and stored. They plan to replace them and add some more when the project is completed. The campground and trails will also be upgraded and reopened when the project is completed.

All other campgrounds are open. There are locked gates at the two entrances to Mill Pond and the project site is closed to the public.