Dam Deal Done

by Ryck Lydecker

Photo of sockeye salmon

Pacific salmon should get a big break in a few years when the country’s biggest dam-removal project begins to pay off on Washington’s Elwha River. Once a major spawning stream for six salmon species plus steelhead, two dams built for power generation, in 1913 and 1927, have blocked all but the final five miles of the river, which flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Neither dam had fish-passage channels built in, cutting off the interior 40 miles of river, and another 30 miles of tributary streams to spawning coho, pink, sockeye, and chum salmon, as well as Chinook, which could weigh in at 100 pounds or more. An estimated 400,000 fish once returned to the Elwha annually to spawn. Now, only about 4,000 fish spawn in the lower river that remains open to the sea.

Dam removal began in the summer of 2010 with shutting off the hydroelectric generators and draining the two lakes behind the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. Actual demolition of the dams began this past September and is expected to take about three years. Nearly the entire Elwha watershed is within Olympic National Park, so the spawning habitat has remained largely pristine.

The nation’s largest dam-removal project has been a long time coming. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which occupies land at the river mouth, has pressed for dam removal since at least 1968. The tribe led restoration efforts on the lower river and has operated a salmon hatchery there since 1976. Congress passed legislation to study how to remove the dam and restore the Elwha in 1992. The decade-long wait and pent-up demand to open the river again spawned Celebrate Elwha, on September 14, in nearby Port Angeles. Events marking the start of demolition included a music and arts festival on City Pier, a concert, poetry readings, and a science fair.