Image: John McMillan

Members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe will tell you that 100-pound Chinook salmon once returned to their namesake river on the northeastern tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. While no one can substantiate the existence of these behemoths, one thing is certain: The construction of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams between 1913 and 1927 cut off Chinook, pink, chum, sockeye, and silver salmon, as well as steelhead, sea-run cutts, and other anadromous fish from nearly 70 miles of traditional spawning habitat in the cold, fast-running reaches of the upper river and its tributaries, reducing fish stocks to a shadow of their pre-dam abundance. Estimates place pre-dam adult salmon returns at nearly 400,000 fish; currently, fewer than one percent of those fish return.

This September, work will begin on the demolition of both dams, which were initially constructed to provide power to a mill in the nearby town of Port Angeles. There is good reason to believe that this may lead to the watershed’s regeneration, and perhaps even the return of triple-digit kings.

The demolition of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams constitutes the largest dam removal project in history, and it’s no wonder that the bureaucratic machinations necessary to coordinate the demolition and subsequent watershed remediation have been the equivalent of fighting a 60-pound Chinook on a 3-weight. The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, which has advocated for dam removal since the structures were built, took its case to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 1968, when Crown Zellerbach (then owner of the dams) applied to renew the operating license for Elwha Dam. The environmental community—including Olympic Park Associates, Seattle Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and American Rivers—then entered the fray. The pulp mill and dams changed corporate parents when James River Corporation purchased Crown Zellerbach and began to appear as more of a liability than an asset.

Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystems and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992, and exploration of methods to restore the Elwha’s river system began. By 2000, the Feds had purchased the dams and removal plans were set in motion; in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $54 million for dam removal, the final cash infusion necessary to see the project through.

The physical removal of the dams is the first challenge facing the lower Elwha’s restoration efforts. The second, and perhaps more daunting task, is the fostering of the lower river’s natural floodplain. George Pess, a fisheries biologist with National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has been involved with stream restoration reconnaissance on the lower Elwha since 2000. “A number of parties have been engaged,” Pess said, “including the National Park Service, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife, and NOAA. We’ve been collecting data on fish and aquatic insect abundance above and below the dams, as well as habitat characteristics.” Extensive computer modeling has helped scientists imagine post-dam flows and plan accordingly to best rehabilitate those river sections inundated by the dams.

“The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has constructed logjams in the lower portion of the Elwha, below the dams, to help augment rearing habitat for salmon as well as creating holding habitat for adult salmon,” Pess continued, “though overall, the system above the dams is in good condition. A vast majority of the watershed is on National Park land, and thus has not been altered much in terms of mining, logging, and road building. The tributaries and upper flood plain are functioning much the way they have for hundreds of years.”

It’s expected that natural re-colonization by surviving species will occur once obstacles are removed, though fish stocks will also be supplemented during and after dam removal. These strategies will vary from species to species. Chinook stock, as well as winter steelhead, will be drawn from Elwha broodstock. 

The removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams comes on the heels of several dam removal projects that seem to have had successful conclusions. In Maine, several impoundments on the Kennebec watershed (the Edwards Dam on the mainstem in Augusta and the Sandy River Dam on the Sandy, a key tributary just upstream) have been eradicated in the last dozen years to create new habitat for striped bass, alewives, shad, and other sea-run fish, including remnant populations of Atlantic salmon. Alewife returns have increased dramatically since the Edwards Dam was removed, one indicator of the system’s increased well being.

In Oregon, the Marmot Dam was removed from the Sandy River, just east of Portland, in 2007. According to Portland General Electric biologist Doug Cramer, one of the concerns prior to removal was how to deal with sediment that had built up since the impoundment was erected in 1906. (PGE owned and managed the dam at the time of its removal.) “We had two major concerns,” Cramer said. “That some spawning grounds for wild Chinook in the first 10 miles below the dam might be compromised by sediment, and that there might be blockages to fish passage. Contingencies were made for both scenarios, but neither came to pass. In fact, we had fish passing up beyond the dam site within four days of its removal.” Cramer said another environmental benefit of the Marmot Dam removal is more community interest: “Opening the river has led to a bigger opportunity for local partners to do more to protect the Sandy’s fish habitat. It’s been like a booster shot for the watershed. People have been energized to do good stuff for the habitat.”

One downside of dam removal—at least from a bio-monitoring perspective—is the challenge of measuring fish returns. Dams that have fish ladders allow managers to count fish and in most cases, discern hatchery from wild stock. Without fish ladders, biologists must rely on comparing redd counts before and after dam removal, and project accordingly. This should prove straightforward on the Elwha, as no fish have passed above the dams for generations.    For many in the angling and conservation communities, the destruction of the Elwha dams is emblematic of the public’s increasing embrace of impoundment removal. Nearly 200 dams have been removed in the last decade. Other impoundments being considered for removal include the Matilija Dam on southern California’s Ventura River watershed and the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite Dams on Washington’s lower Snake.

There will be no crystal buggers or Skykomish sunrises cast for Elwha salmon or steelhead for at least five years due to a five-year moratorium to allow the salmonid populations to take hold and recover. In a best case scenario, salmon numbers could begin to approach pre-dam levels in as little as 15 years.

“These animals are amazing,” Pess said. “Give them proper habitat, and they will prosper quite well. I, for one, will gladly forego the opportunity to catch fish in the short term if it provides for their long-term well being.”