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.