The largest dam removal in U.S. history hopes to restore salmon
to the Elwha River. But will the salmon come home?
The Elwha River begins
deep within Olympic National Park. It cuts through the mountains for forty-five miles before meeting the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
THE ELWHA RIVER WAS HOME
THE LOWER ELWHA KLALLAM PEOPLE
The Klallam people have lived on the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula since time immemorial. Today, the Native American tribe has a reservation at the mouth of the Elwha River. Salmon play a key role in Klallam life. The fish provide a source of food and income, but they also play an important role in traditional ceremonial practices.
"My grandfather was one of the last ones to fish a healthy Elwha River and I know that my kids and grandkids will be able to fish a healthy Elwha River again.”
- Robert Elofson
Elwha Restoration Director
Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Member
HARNESSING THE RIVER
Early in the 20th century, two hydroelectric dams were built on the Elwha River. Thomas Aldwell, a Canadian entrepreneur, started construction on Elwha Dam in 1910. In 1927, Glines Canyon Dam was finished twelve miles upstream.
THE RIVER POWERED AN INDUSTRY
For much of the 20th century, logging was the biggest economy on the Olympic Peninsula.
The Elwha River dams provided the electricity that powered the papers mills in nearby Port Angeles. The economy boomed, but the salmon runs nearly went extinct.
The dams were built without fish ladders, so salmon couldn’t get past. Elwha Dam was built only five miles from the river’s mouth, leaving very little habitat for salmon to spawn.
In 1939, most of the Elwha River watershed became a part of Olympic National Park. Even though Glines Canyon Dam was privately owned, it was now surrounded by public land.
TO RESTORE THE RIVER, THE DAMS MUST GO
The Lower Elwha Klallam, along with environmental groups, had been fighting to tear down the dams since the 1960s. In 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Restoration Act. The law mandated the full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and its salmon. The $325 million project began in 2011. Elwha Dam was gone by summer 2012. Glines Canyon Dam was gone by spring 2014.
“It’s about a river that has the greatest potential to be restored. If we can’t restore this and make this right, then we need to quit because this has the highest probability of success.”
- Kevin Yancy
Elwha Project Director
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
THE LIFE OF A SALMON
Salmon are a keystone species. They deliver vital nutrients from the ocean to the ecosystem. Their life cycle has five stages:
A RIVER FULL OF FISH
Most rivers in the Pacific Northwest only host a couple of salmon species. The Elwha River was once home to all five species of Pacific Salmon. Roll over each species to see their potential range once the dams are gone.
Chinook- Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
Also known as King Salmon, Chinook are the largest Pacific salmon species.
Coho- Oncorhynchus kisutch
When Coho salmon return to spawn, their jaws and teeth become hooked.
Sockeye- Oncorhynchus nerka
Sockeye salmon spawn in lakes and there was a small population that returned to Lake Sutherland.
Pink- Oncorhynchus gorbuscha
Pink are the smallest and most abundant species of salmon.
Chum salmon are also known Dog or Keta salmon. They have the largest natural range of Pacific salmon.
A LIVING EXPERIMENT
From high in the watershed all the way down to the nearshore environment, the removal of the Elwha River dams will transform the entire ecosystem. Restoration on a watershed scale provides scientists with a unique opportunity to study the transformation.
A JOURNEY FROM SOURCE TO SEA
In August 2012, a team of filmmakers and paddlers set out to follow the Elwha River from source to sea. Over the course of three weeks, the crew paddled or portaged the entire length of the river. The crew used packrafts - small, light rafts - to float the river. They experienced the wilderness firsthand.
Day 1: Crossing the Olympic Mountains
Day 3: Headwaters of the Elwha
Day 4: Log Jams
Day 6: Unexpected Canyons
Day 6: Leaving the Wilderness
Day 8: Glines Canyon Dam
Day 9: Lake Aldwell
Day 12: Elwha Dam
Day 12: River's End
Will Salmon Return?
In August 2012 - during the final few days of the expedition – biologists from Olympic National Park were surveying in Little River and Indian Creek.There, holding in the current, they found several Chinook Salmon. Both tributaries are above the Elwha Dam site. Salmon were beginning to find their way home.
In 2012, the Chinook run that returned to the Elwha River was the largest in decades.