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Restoring the Lower Snake River

elwhariverSeptember 12, 2014

By Joel Connelly
The largest dam removal in history experienced a key first signal of success this week, as three adult Chinook salmon were spotted above the site of recently blasted-away Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic National Park.

The discovery, by snorkeling Park Service biologists, marks the first return of Chinook in 102 years to upper reaches of the Olympic Peninsula’s master river.

“When dam removal began three years ago, Chinook salmon were blocked far downstream by Elwha Dam.  Today, we celebrate the return of Chinook to the upper Elwha River for the first time in over a century,” said Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum.

The dam removal will open up an estimated 70 miles of salmon habitat in a river system once populated by thousands of Chinook salmon, some reaching 100 pounds in size.

Early in the 20th century, ignoring state law, Port Angeles boomers built two dams that shut off all but the lower five miles of river to spawning salmon.

The dams came before creation of 917,000-acre Olympic National Park, which protects most of the Elwha and pristine salmon spawning pools not used for more than a century.

The fish biologists found two of the salmon resting near long-submerged stumps, while a third was found in a pool that until recently was part of Lake Mills behind the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam.

Ex-Rep. Norm Dicks:  He has fished for salmon out of Sekiu since he was a little boy.  Dicks championed removing dams from the Elwha.

The final blast, removing the final chunk of Glines Canyon Dam, took place less than a month ago.

Biologists from the Park Service and the Lower Elwha Klallam Indians have counted 432 Chinook in the 1.75 miles between the former Elwha Dam and now-former Glines Canyon Dam.  The river is cutting channels between small ridges of planted vegetation in what used to be Lake Aldwell.

The snorkelers were also able to count 27 bull trout and 400 rainbow trout during their underwater tour of the former Lake Mills.

The dam removal was once a dream of the Lower Elwha Klallams, given a wide voice in Bruce Brown’s book “Mountain in the Clouds” and championed by the park-safeguarding group Olympic Park Associates.

It picked up an ally in longtime (1976-2012) U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who has fished for salmon out of Sekiu since he was a little boy. Another champion was then-Sen. Brock Adams, a great indoorsman.

Olympic National Park’s then-Superintendent Maureen Finnerty ruffled feathers in Washington, D.C., by advocating dam removal in a front-page New York Times story in 1991. It was the first that then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan had heard of the proposal.

Slowly, the cause gained national champions.  U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made gestures of pulling the plunger during 1993 and 1998 trips to the peninsula.  New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley shepherded the dam removal legislation through his subcommittee.  Even Republican Rep. John Kasich (now Ohio governor) made a trip out to the Elwha and came away convinced this was a conservation cause that conservatives could support.

The much-maligned Obama stimulus package provided a chunk of cash that sped up removal of Glines Canyon Dam.

The restoration of the Elwha has come to pass, and is being witnessed joyously.

In a famous verbal blooper, Alaska’s development-crazed Gov. Wally Hickel declared:  “We can’t just let nature run wild.”

Mother Nature is doing just that on the Elwha River, at a faster pace than anyone could have predicted.

Read article with photos here.

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