This is the third in a five-part series by SOS and American Rivers spotlighting the ecological and community benefits associated with previously completed dam removal/river restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Third in the Series: Restoring the Elwha River
By Isabella Bledsoe
Location: Elwha River, Washington State - and the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish and Klallam.
The Elwha River is 45 miles long and flows from its headwaters high in the Olympic National Park in Washington State to the salt waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This renowned river system and watershed historically supported thriving populations of five salmon species, including Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink, and Sockeye, and other fish species such as Steelhead and Bull Trout, as well as robust populations of elk, black bear, cougar, river otter, and eagle. Since time immemorial, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has relied heavily on this river system for salmon and other fishes. Salmon provided nutrition and supported Tribal trading; these fish are central to their culture, traditions, and spiritual practices. However, with the construction of two dams – Elwha and Glines Canyon - in the early 1900s, this flourishing river system was disrupted and damaged and the once-abundant salmon and steelhead populations plummeted. Several populations including coho and sockeye disappeared completely.
"The story of the Elwha is: We can do it. We can overcome a century of harm. We can work together. We can restore a river. We can show our grandchildren what commitment, responsibility, and stewardship look like." - Bob Irvin, previous President of American Rivers
The Elwha Dam was completed in 1913 and was built to harness hydropower to support the booming logging industry in the greater Port Angeles area. It stood 108 feet tall, 450 feet wide, and sat five miles upstream from the river's mouth. A few years later in 1927, the Glines Canyon Dam was built eight miles upstream of the Elwha Dam. The Glines Canyon Dam stood 210 feet tall and 150 feet wide. Both dams were built without fish passage, harming migrating salmon by restricting access to the river system to just 5 miles of spawning habitat near the mouth of the river. Large dam walls also blocked sediments, creating eroded riverbanks and beaches, while simultaneously holding water from flowing downstream and therefore flooding the ancestral homelands and religious sites of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
In 1968, Crown Zellerbach Corporation, the owner of the dams, applied to license the Elwha Dam and applied in 1973 to renew the Glines Canyon Dam's operating license. The Tribe opposed the licenses, as did multiple conservation organizations. This opposition catalyzed a multi-decade campaign for dam removal. After many years of Tribal leadership, community organizing, and active leadership by key public officials, in 1992 Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystems and Fisheries Restoration Act initiating a study to identify possible avenues to fully restore the Elwha River. In 1995, the resulting Environmental Impact Statement identified removing the Elwha and the Glines Canyon Dams as a preferred option for restoring the river system. In 2000, the U.S. Department of the Interior purchased the dams for $29.5 million, and in 2011 the federal government and partners led the deconstruction of the dams. At the time, this was the world's largest dam removal project. It provided restored access to 70 miles of ancestral spawning grounds and fish habitat.
"The story of the Elwha is: We can do it. We can overcome a century of harm. We can work together. We can restore a river. We can show our grandchildren what commitment, responsibility, and stewardship look like. We can be the beneficiaries of an abundance of riches that flow from a river that runs free," said Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers.
Benefits of River Restoration
Almost a decade after dam removal began, there are many signs of an ecosystem in recovery. Before dam construction, over 400,000 adult salmon returned annually to the Elwha River to spawn; just before dam removal, salmon returning to the Elwha had fallen to approximately 4,000. Now, salmon are starting to recover and return. More than 4,000 spawning chinook were counted above the deconstructed Elwha Dam after the first season it was removed. In 2014, approximately 32,000 Coho salmon fry swam out of the middle reach of the Elwha River, an area that previously had no Coho salmon. As these fish populations recover, other wildlife, including bears, cougars, mink, otters, and even America's only aquatic songbird, the American dipper, are returning to the area. Scientists are hopeful that dam removal and river restoration efforts will lead to fish populations near 400,000 in the next 20 to 30 years.
Further, the river's natural flow has been reestablished as 33 million tons of sediment that were once trapped behind the dams have shifted and moved. About 8 million tons of this sediment has resettled along the river and its mouth, and another 14 million tons settled along the coast and in the ocean. The sediment movement has created new habitats for river organisms, including 70 acres of estuary habitat near the river's mouth. Healthy nearshore environments are important for salmon, herring, and smelt, and they often are home to sardines, anchovies, crabs, shrimp, gulls, and other birds. Before dam removal, the nearshore ecosystem was starved for sediment and, as a result, was greatly reduced and damaged.
"What the Elwha can show, though, is that systems with dams on them can be recovered pretty rapidly if bold steps are taken. And I think it holds a lot of hope for regional recovery if we can get our hands around that problem." - Kim Sager-Fradkin, wildlife biologist for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe
Removing Elwha River dams and rebuilding its salmon populations is an important step toward upholding our nation's promises to sustain fish populations for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Keeping this promise of maintaining – and restoring – healthy, resilient, life-giving rivers is essential for the well-being, heritage, and identity of local tribes. There is still extensive restoration work to be done. A fishing moratorium to protect depleted salmon populations has been in place since 2011 and is set to end in July of 2021; this means that tribes are still unable to fish in the Elwha River.
Kim Sager-Fradkin, a wildlife biologist for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, acknowledges that "Restoration takes a long time. People want to tell this story that the river is restored and move on. And it's not quite as clear as that." Yet, recovery trends are encouraging, and Mike McHenry, a fisheries biologist with the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, stated, "What the Elwha can show, though, is that systems with dams on them can be recovered pretty rapidly if bold steps are taken. And I think it holds a lot of hope for regional recovery if we can get our hands around that problem."
Watch the film Return of the River about the Elwha dam removal to learn more!
Removing dams can create positive economic, community, ecological, and social justice outcomes and has become an increasingly accepted river restoration mechanism. “The success on the Elwha shows we can actually fix things,” states John Gussman, a photographer and filmmaker that has been documenting the restoration of the Elwha. These benefits prompt us to support comprehensive solutions, including dam removal, as an investment in the Pacific Northwest and its indigenous people, its fish and whales, clean energy, and a revitalized economy.
Appreciation for the hard work by many...
Thank you, first and foremost to the leadership of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe as well as American Rivers, Olympic Park Associates, Seattle Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, The Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service – Olympic National Park, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA, United States Geological Survey, University of Washington, Trout Unlimited, Coastal Watershed Institute, and many others.
Isabella Bledsoe is an intern with SOS while she attends the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, pursuing a master's degree in Environmental Justice and Geospatial Data Sciences.
- American Rivers. (n.d.). Elwha River: (Re)Born to be wild. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.americanrivers.org/river/elwha-river
- American Rivers. (n.d.). Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.americanrivers.org/elwha-and-glines-canyon-dams
- American Rivers. (n.d.). Elwha River Restoration. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://web.archive.org/web/20110926132831/http://www.americanrivers.org/our-work/restoring-rivers/dams/projects/elwha-river-background.html
- American Rivers. (2014, August 25). Elwha river's health rebounding as biggest dam removal in history nears completion. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/elwha-rivers-health-rebounding-biggest-dam-removal-history-nears-completion/
- Emery, B. (2020, December 15). The Elwha: A roadmap for River Restoration across the Northwest Region. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://blog.nwf.org/2020/12/the-elwha-a-roadmap-for-river-restoration/
- Hill, M. (2020, April 22). How a dying river came roaring back to life. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2020/04/how-a-dying-river-came-roaring-back-to-life
- Howard, B. C. (2016, June 2). River revives After largest dam removal in U.S. History. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/largest-dam-removal-elwha-river-restoration-environment
- Kober, A. S. (2016, September 09). Five years later, the Elwha reborn. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.americanrivers.org/2016/09/five-years-later-elwha-reborn/
- Mapes Seattle Times environment reporter, L. V. (2016, February 13). Elwha: Roaring back to life. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://projects.seattletimes.com/2016/elwha/
- National Park Service. (n.d.). History of the Elwha. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.nps.gov/olym/learn/nature/history-of-the-elwha.html
- National Parks Traveler Staff. (2019, April 11). Groups agree to extend fishing closure on Elwha River through Olympic National Park. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2019/04/groups-agree-extend-fishing-closure-elwha-river-through-olympic-national-park
- Tucker, A. (2011, September 14). On the Elwha, a new life when the dam breaks. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/on-the-elwha-a-new-life-when-the-dam-breaks-79981416/
- USGS. (2018, September 5). Moving Mountains: Elwha River Still Changing Five Years After World’s Largest Dam-Removal Project: More than 20 million tons of sediment flushed to the sea. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from https://www.usgs.gov/news/moving-mountains-elwha-river-still-changing-five-years-after-world-s-largest-dam-removal