Olympic National Park Boosts Stream Flows to Help Salmon, But Might Not Be Enough

Low flows on the Elwha River, shown here during summer, could be detrimental to spawning Chinook salmon this fall. NPS photo by John Woods.

Reports on climate change and national parks often mention parks as valuable in helping wildlife species survive by providing environmental sanctuaries of sorts. But a case playing out at Olympic National Park demonstrates how parks might not always be able to provide wildlife with what they need during climatic changes.

This past summer and now early fall are proving atypically dry for the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. As a result, streamflows are considerably down from their norms. That's bad news for Chinook salmon that spawn and lay their redds, or egg nests, in the streams. For instance, the average flow for the Elwha River whose headwaters are in Olympic National Park is just shy of 650 cubic feet per second in early October, according to park officials. This fall, the flow is far below that.

To help improve matters, Olympic Superintendent Karen Gustin, in collaboration with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, has authorized increased flows from the impoundments behind the Glines Canyon Dam and Elwha Dam. Even with those higher releases, though, the Elwha River's flow is only up to 353 cubic feet per second, say park officials. Whether that's enough for the Chinook remains to be seen.

According to Olympic officials, both dams are managed to maintain the river’s natural flow. Officials measure the amount of water entering the reservoirs, and then release the same amount. This year’s dry weather and very low river flows have generated concern for spawning salmon and the need for increased water release, they add. The increased releases will continue until the reservoirs have dropped up to 18 feet, or until a substantial amount of rain falls, whichever happens first. This type of flow augmentation has been provided several times in recent years.

The Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration project is the country's largest dam removal to date, and one of the largest construction projects in the history of the National Park Service. Removing two aging dams -- beginning in 2011 -- on the Elwha River is expected to restore the river to its natural free-flowing state and allow all five species of Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish to once again reach more than 70 miles of near-pristine freshwater habitat. In turn, the salmon will return vital nutrients to the watershed, restoring the entire ecosystem, from insects to eagles.

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