Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Upcoming Elwha River Dam Removal: more salmon, more jobs, more food, and lessons for the future

Question: What do imperiled orcas and salmon, the S’Klallam tribe, fishermen, and residents of the Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula have in common right now?

Answer: Their shared anticipation about the upcoming removal of two large dams on the Elwha River that originates in the heart of the Olympic National Park. There are plenty of benefits to go around: a free-flowing Elwha River will mean not only a lot more salmon, but also jobs and economic activity. Elwha dam removal is a job-creator. In addition, this success on the Elwha holds important lessons for other dam removal efforts in the region – including on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

Today’s cause for celebration began more than two decades ago with a then-controversial proposal introduced by members of the S’Klallam Tribe living on the banks of the Elwha River. But everything has changed today. Preparations for dam removal – the nation’s largest to date – are already well under way. Concrete will start coming down in September, with a freely flowing Elwha River river by March 2014.

The Elwha once teemed with salmon. It was particularly famous for its “hogs” – 100-pound chinook salmon. But it was also one of those rare Northwest rivers that was home to all five types of Pacific salmon – chinook, coho, chum, pink, and sockeye, as well as steelhead. It was a quintessential salmon river - until two dams were constructed on it a century ago. The 70+ miles of perfect rivers and streams were completely cut off just four miles from the ocean. The promised fish ladders were never installed and the salmon devastated.

The Elwha River and Glines Canyon Dams are 108 feet and 210 feet in height, respectively. One of the big challenges in this removal process is sediment. Tremendous amounts of sediment have been deposited behind both dams that will be flushed out to the estuary as the dams are removed. This has both an upside and a downside.

The estuary at the mouth of the river has been literally starved of sediments for the last century. Restoring natural sediment deliveries from a free-flowing Elwha River will provide huge habitat benefits in the estuary. However, until this massive pulse of sediment has moved through the river system starting next fall, there will be negative, albeit temporary, habitat impacts.

River Restoration = Job Creation

A restored Elwha is expected to once again support 300,000 salmon and steelhead in just 15 – 20 years, making S’Klallam tribal members, fishermen, and endangered orcas in desperate need of more chinook very, very happy. And it is also creating a lot of much-needed jobs in both the near and long-term. Planning, mitigation projects, dam removal, and habitat restoration – will create hundreds of new local jobs. In the longer-term, a restored river and healthy salmon runs will support roughly 2,000 local jobs in sectors like fishing, guide services, gear sales, and different types of outdoor recreation and tourism.

Nearly thirty years ago, when this conversation about removing the two dams on the Elwha got started, the idea was controversial. But over the years, as safety concerns mounted, as stakeholders sat down and talked about what they would need if the dams were removed, a plan was crafted that led to Congressional authorization and funding to remove the dams and meet the needs of local people and communities.

The restoration of the Elwha River is a huge win for the people of Washington State and the nation. Starting in 2011, SOS will be tracking the progress of this important project and writing about its history and lessons, its people and the place, the costs and the anticipated benefits in terms of jobs, fishing opportunity, orca survival, and salmon recovery.


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  2. too bad WDFW and the tribe are going to thwart recolonization of the pristine elwha by continuing to dump thousands of hatchery salmon and steelhead into the river annually. More hatchery fish go into the Elwha every year than the entire oregon coast.

  3. We can disagree over the amount of hatchery plants using the wild brood stock being used, but there should be no disagreement that planting 60,000 chambers creek steelhead each year during the 5 year harvest moratorium is a bad idea.

    Still planning on celebrating righting this environmental wrong and seeing the elwha flowing free from the headwaters to the sea.

  4. Can someone please enlighten me? There have been 145 dams removed since 1999, and I'm seeing the salmon issue, but not the conflict.

    Is the problem:

    (1) ...that salmon can’t swim up past dams? They would be climbing this height anyway, just at a slower rate. A thoughtfully designed fish ladder provides a way for salmon to both climb and rest.
    (2) ...that dams restrict water flow downstream to below levels that support salmon? This is a policy issue. Mandate release levels based on salmon needs.
    (3) ...that dams create large, warm bodies of water that are home to lake species that prey on young salmon and reduce survival rates? For the price of a dam removal, you could create a shaded and cooler waterway on one side of the lake from dam to input source that is for the exclusive use of salmon, bypassing the lake altogether.
    (4) ...that effluent from dams warms the river to levels above what salmon can handle? This issue combines technology (dedicated waterway at edge of lake) with policy (mandate riparian borders that include tree cover to cool the river).

    Certainly I can't be the only person astounded by billions in intentionally lost clean-energy infrastructure. What am I missing?


  5. Make that river pristine again Bob. Its a gem of a system, and a litmus test for future dam removal projects around the world. Nobody cares about the 'clean energy' (clean to the atmosphere, thats about it) those outdated, dilapidated dams can potentially create with the river. We care about the anadromous species that can reclaim it. Its about principality, mang. Not about point-counterpoint. Halo, Starwars, Matrix. Gansta!

  6. Bobfo, those are good efforts at creative problem-solving, to try to keep the benefits of the dams and yet restore the riparian habitat needed by salmon. Fish ladders were required by law when the dams were built, but the laws were ignored. Building two fish ladders would be a huge project and wouldn't solve the problem of the slack reservoir water. The greatest losses to wild salmon occur between the time the tiny hatchlings start to flow downstream and their grand entrance into the wild blue ocean. First, they have to make it downriver. They don't actually swim. They flow, tailfirst, so unless the bypass river diverts most of the river water and keeps it flowing downstream inevitably many, or most, of the smolts will end up in the slack water. Not only are there predators there that devour the smolts, but by delaying their flow downstream the genetic growth stages, pegged to natural river flows, will proceed, so their systems will transition to saltwater while they are still far upstream in fresh water.
    Unfortunately it's pretty much an either/or proposition: either dam the water to use the energy for hydropower, or let it flow to allow the salmon and all the mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians that depend on salmon to thrive.

  7. Both these dams are tall, particularly Glines Canyon and so a fish ladder would have to be pretty long to make that climb possible.

    These dams have other impacts on the river and estuary. The slow moving water at the top of the reservoirs drops the sediment it has been carrying from the high headwaters streams and this material never makes it past the dam. In stream, the sediment is critical for creating spawning habitat, and at the estuary it's important for maintaining shellfish habitat. By returning the river to it's natural course, this sediment will again be carried downstream to places where it is needed.

    Glines Canyon Dam is within Olympic NP and it will be significant to restore the river within the park.