IONE, Wash. – The Cedar Creek dam was smashed and removed Tuesday morning, opening the stream once again to migrating bull trout and protecting the small town below from a potential breach.
The demolition of the 95-foot-wide concrete structure is believed to be the largest dam removal yet in the Inland Northwest. The event was cause for celebration in this town of 425 people – dignitaries were coming, a barbecue was planned and a swatch of red shag carpet rounded up for a creekside ceremony – but the headline act happened hours earlier than engineers had originally estimated.
“I missed it!” said Sandy Dotts, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife official who spent much of the last four years spearheading the removal effort.
A television news reporter from Spokane stood near the pile of broken concrete and river mud grumbling about not catching the drama on film. “We kind of wanted to see it come down,” he said.
Ione Councilwoman Leanna Powers shrugged her shoulders and replied, “Well, we can’t really put it back up for you.”
The demolition went much faster than expected because most of the 2-foot-thick dam was not reinforced with steel bars, said John Willey, one of the owners of B&W Excavating. The firm, based in Valley, Wash., was hired to remove the dam and the estimated 20,000 cubic yards of sediment it had trapped. Willey suspects the town didn’t have enough money when it built the dam in 1950 to pay for the steel rebar – there’s never been much extra money in this isolated corner of Washington, he said. Still, dam builders managed to create a strong barrier.
“They made a good pour,” Willey said, pausing from his work. “When we broke it apart, it didn’t crumble into little pieces. A sign of quality concrete is it comes out in big chunks. The dam still worked. It worked real hard.”
But the dam was no longer needed and the town a half-mile downstream didn’t have the money to maintain it. Ione stopped using the dam to collect drinking water in 1988. The town now slakes its thirst with groundwater, though some residents say they still miss the taste of Cedar Creek’s clean, cool water – the creek flows out of a pristine forested valley.
Bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout once migrated up the creek to spawn, but the fish were unable to leap the 19-foot-tall dam. Not only was the dam hurting the fish, it also posed a risk for people downstream, said Powers, the Ione councilwoman who also serves as sewer and water commissioner. If the crumbly limestone cliffs supporting the dam were to give out or if a large flood were to knock out the aging dam, the breach could have unleashed the equivalent of 2,000 dump truck loads of mud.
When the project was proposed five years ago, many locals were skeptical, Powers said. But word began to spread about the risks and potential benefits. Powers worked with Dotts to obtain $850,000 in federal and state funds to pay for the removal and stream restoration work – fixing the dam and installing fish ladders would have cost nearly as much, Powers said.
“This had to happen,” Powers said. “I don’t want the next generation on the City Council to wonder, ‘What were they thinking?’ ”
Most of the money came from the Salmon Recovery Board, which distributes state and federal money to boost threatened and endangered fish stocks. Large runs of cutthroat and bull trout won’t be returning to the creek anytime soon, though. Their ancient migration routes are blocked by turbine blades at Albeni Falls and Box Canyon dams on the Pend Oreille River. Discussions of installing fish passages at the dams are beginning, Dotts said.
“When we get passage at the big dams, Cedar Creek will be sitting here ready for the fish,” Dotts said.
A lone bull trout was found downstream from the dam two years ago. A small population remains in the Pend Oreille River, and the fish was likely seeking refuge in the creek’s cool water, Dotts said.
Nationwide, at least 56 other dams in 11 states are expected to be removed this year, according to a survey conducted by the conservation group American Rivers. In Washington, the largest removal to date was the demolition of the 150-foot-long dam on the Olympic Peninsula’s Goldsborough Creek, said Doug Zimmer, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Plans also are moving forward to remove dams on the Elwha and White Salmon rivers. Two years from now, the massive Milltown Dam near Missoula, Mont., will be breached.
Hopefully, the dam removals will also help remove threatened and endangered fish from Endangered Species Act protection, Zimmer said. “If you unbuild it, they will come.”
Before the Cedar Creek dam could be breached, the creek needed to be rerouted through 1,000 feet of plastic pipe. Crews are now removing the last of the sediment behind the dam – it was 20 feet deep in some spots. A portion of the creek will continue to flow through the pipe until the end of the month when the restoration work is completed.
Most of the mud has already been hauled out of the narrow canyon and colorful river rocks are again exposed. The earthy, pondlike smell of the trapped sediment was still heavy in the air near the old dam site Tuesday morning. It might take five years before the creek is fully healed, but brook trout have been spotted swimming near a log jam deliberately placed nearby as part of the restoration effort. Willows, dogwoods and native grasses are also being replanted on the banks in accordance with detailed plans drawn up by the project’s design firm, Inter-Fluve of Hood River, Ore.
Local residents and officials traveled to the site Tuesday afternoon to gawk at the remains of the old dam and listen to commemorative speeches. Shortly after arriving, everybody crowded to the edge of a hill overlooking Cedar Creek.
“Wow! It really is gone,” said Steve Davis, a former mayor of Ione.
After the brief ceremony, commemorative chunks of the dam were handed out. The jagged pieces of concrete were still cool and damp from the creek they once held back. Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission member Fred Shiosaki of Spokane was not interested in a clunky paperweight, though. He wanted to know when he could return to the fishing holes where he had caught cutthroat trout 60 years earlier.
“When are the fish going to be back?” Shiosaki asked. “When can we fish here again?”