The Elwha story [Western USA]

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By Jerry Freilich

Jerry Freilich is a PhD-holding aquatic ecologist who served thirteen years as Research Coordinator at Olympic National Park, during the time that the two Elwha River Dams were removed.

Removing the two dams on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park (Washington) was like turning around a giant ocean liner at sea. Although science and economics clearly showed that the dams needed to be removed, it still took 25 years of hard work and tenacity before public and political opinion was turned around making the seemingly impossible – possible.

The Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula was dammed by entrepreneurial businessmen in the early 1900’s. They wanted electricity to power paper mills and sawmills in this only recently-colonized part of the Wild West. Washington received statehood in 1889, but even then, state law required that dam builders must provide passage “wherever food fish are wont to ascend.” The two Elwha dams were built in violation of that law, in one stroke, wiping out the livelihood of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe whose members had subsisted on those fish for millennia.

The Elwha historically boasted spectacular runs of five salmon species (Coho, Chinook, Chum, Pink, and Sockeye) and world-class size Steelhead. Each of the salmon species used different parts of the river and different seasons for spawning. The big returning salmon were fat from things they ate at sea: “marine-derived nutrients.” So, in addition to their importance as human food, after spawning the salmons’ dead bodies provided an important infusion of fertilizer to the surrounding forest.

The Elwha dams were built on land, part of which was incorporated into Olympic National Park in the 1930’s. In the 1970’s the lower (Elwha) and upper (Glines Canyon) dams would have needed licensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). But to meet current standards, fish passage would have been required. The dams produced significant power for 1920’s Port Angeles. But relative to modern usage, that amount was minuscule. Refitting with fish passage would have cost millions. So, in the end, the dams were removed between 2011 and 2014 through a complex process that involved the National Park Service, Elwha Tribe, Bureau of Reclamation, US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), NOAA Fisheries, and other entities. The story of how this happened is a true epic.

In 1968, Crown Zellerbach, the company that owned the dams applied to FERC for relicensing. Their application was opposed by the Elwha Tribe armed with the 1973 Boldt Decision that had granted tribes legal rights to fish and wildlife in their “usual and accustomed” hunting and fishing lands. The tribe was joined by allies so that by the 1980s a dozen groups opposed the relicensing process, including Seattle Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Wilderness Society and American Rivers. Arguments for and against dam removal raged locally and in the halls of Washington DC.

A breakthrough was passage of the Elwha Restoration Act in 1992 that authorized the Secretary of the Interior to “acquire the two hydroelectric dam projects and implement the actions necessary to achieve full restoration of the Elwha River and the native anadromous fisheries therein.”  

The Restoration Act’s goal was to restore the river, but it didn’t explicitly require dam removal. To resolve the matter, not one, but finally two Environmental Impact Statements were prepared. Comprised of numerous studies, analyses, and modeling, the reports take up eight feet of shelf space. Even then, it took countless meetings and debate before it became clear that the only practical way to restore the river was to remove the dams. And so began the complicated negotiations with private landowners, multiple government agencies, and the Elwha Tribe.

Along with the myriad technical and administrative complexities of this project, the battle for public opinion also raged. Televised events showed opponents swearing that the dams would never be removed. Time and again local citizens voiced their wish to keep the dams for aesthetic or sentimental reasons even in the face of economic and scientific arguments. It is likely that in the 1970’s 80-90% of Olympic Peninsula residents would have favored keeping the dams in place. It took seemingly endless public meetings, educational symposia, and candidate debates, to change public opinion. It is this part of the story that most astonishingly describes the turning of an ocean liner at sea. By the mid 2000’s public opinion had shifted so that 80-90% likely favored dam removal—a 180º shift in the course of 25 years.

There were still many obstacles before deconstruction could begin. Over the century of the dams’ existence more than 20 million cubic meters of sediment were deposited above them. Because the Elwha River provides drinking water for the City of Port Angeles and the sole remaining paper mill in town, sediment management was a major dilemma. Under any scenario removing the dams would release those sediments. So two new water treatment facilities were constructed to filter sediment from the water that would otherwise clog the pipes.

When the dams were removed that sediment was washed downstream by natural precipitation. Extensive modeling was done to predict impacts of the sediment to the nearshore ecosystem and follow-up studies closely tracked those developments, which included impacts to the nearshore eelgrass and kelp communities and accretion of sediment on Ediz Hook, the peninsula forming Port Angeles harbor.

The dams had been managed as “run of the river” meaning they were not purposely built for flood control. But suddenly having a free-flowing river brought change to the riparian corridor. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed levees near the mouth of the river to protect private property. Nonetheless, Park Service campgrounds and the Highway 101 bridge were damaged when the wild river returned.

Once deconstruction began in 2011 the two reservoirs (Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell) very quickly changed from lakes into riparian meadows. Concerned that these dry lakebeds could become a route for invasion of non-native plants into the park, an elaborate revegetation program was created to seed and replant native forbs and shrubs on those areas. A special greenhouse was built to cultivate these plants and hundreds of volunteers helped Park Service staff carrying those plants to the site… at first by boat, and when the reservoirs were gone… on foot.

Removing the dams themselves was a gigantic task. Blasting would have unleashed a torrent of sediment fatal to the salmon. Instead, to protect the fish, the dams were taken down in carefully metered steps. The engineers used hydraulic hammers like those used to demolish buildings in cities. These devices, mounted on backhoes, were floated on rafts behind the dams.

A mechanical excavator breaking the old cofferdam between the north and south spillways of the Elwha dam (cropped from a photo by Doug Zimmer [USFWS]; CC BY-NC 2.0)

All deconstruction was stopped for critical months during fall and spring salmon spawning. Final chunks of rock and reinforced concrete that blocked the river at the very end of deconstruction were reduced with dynamite.

Local artists were commissioned to create a series of banners to commemorate the Elwha dam removal event (cropped from a photo by Doug Zimmer [USFWS]; CC BY-NC 2.0)

Of course, the biggest concerns focused on return of the salmon. Scientists and “wild salmon” advocates would have liked the dam removal to permit the return of native wild salmon on their own timetable. But the Elwha Tribe was adamant that hatchery fish were required to jump start salmon recolonization. Hatchery fish are less fit than wild salmon and interbreeding of natives with hatchery fish weakens the genetic pool. Lawsuits were brought to stop use of hatchery fish. But in the end, the Tribe prevailed, and a new hatchery and hatchery fish were part of the scheme.

For years before dam removal, annual surveys were conducted to locate and count all fish populations in the Elwha drainage. These included use of fish traps, marked fish, and whole-river surveys involving large teams of biologists snorkeling the entire 45 miles of river counting every fish they saw.

Deconstruction began in September 2011 and was completed in 2014. The salmon that had been blocked by the dams for a century wasted no time in returning. The Peninsula Daily News of 14 September 2014 headlined, “Salmon return to upper Elwha River” and “Chinook beyond Glines Canyon for first time in 102 years.”

Duda and colleagues wrote: “After dam removal, we counted two to four times as many Bull Trout, trout, and Chinook Salmon and hundreds of Summer Steelhead which were previously very rare in the river. All nine migratory fish runs passed the former Elwha Dam within 31  months, and eight of nine ascended through Glines Canyon within 60 months. Juvenile Coho Salmon and Chinook Salmon were also seen upstream of each dam, demonstrating that spawning adults and their progeny are utilizing upstream habitats.”

A juvenile Coho Salmon (photographed in the Campbell Creek, Alaska)

Today, in the place of two large reservoirs, the Elwha River flows free from its headwaters in Olympic National Park to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The former reservoir lakebeds are now lush with lupine, alder, and willow rapidly evolving into forestland. The Salmon, Steelhead, Bulltrout, and Pacific Lamprey are returning to their historic haunts. Scientists continue documenting what is expected to be a 20-30 year ‘recovery trajectory’ as the ecosystem responds. But perhaps nothing summarizes things better than this…

In 1909, William Delabarre wrote in his journal:

We made 15 miles that day and camped for the night in the bottom near Lost River [an Elwha tributary]. Just below camp is a famous trout-hole where the river pouring over a ledge of slate rock forms a deep pool. Peering cautiously over the bank we could see no less than 20 Rainbow trout [actually Summer Steelhead] – leaping in the crystal-clear water. Great-big fellows they were two and three feet-long. It was a sight to make a fisherman’s nerves tingle and gave promise of rare sport – & a royal supper.

Pat Crain, Fisheries Biologist at Olympic National Park, returned to the exact spot and saw the exact sight in 2021. The impossible had become possible.

Location of the Elwha valley