A history-making and much debated project to restore the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State has taken a big step forward. A contract has been awarded to remove the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in an ambitious, and expensive, effort to reverse decades of environmental damage to an important river system.
The Elwha River is hardly a household name for many of us, so why are plans underway to spend upwards of $350 million dollars in an effort to restore the river to natural conditions?
Long ago, some of the richest runs of salmon outside of Alaska crowded upstream to their spawning grounds in the wild Elwha River. The river ran freely through towering forests that sheltered a living community including black bears, cougars, eagles and the Klallam people. Ten different runs of anadromous fish, including coho, pink, chum, sockeye and Chinook salmon, along with cutthroat trout, native char and steelhead, made this pristine valley their home.
That situation changed in the early 1900s, when the nation's focus was on economic development, not environmental protection, and words such as "ecology" weren't even in the national vocabulary. Investors saw the river as a ready source of hydroelectric power, and between 1910 and 1927, a pair of dams was constructed on the Elwha to power a pulp mill and fuel the local economy.
Industry benefited, but an intentional failure to include fish ladders as part of the dams drastically reduced the available habitat for fish. By some estimates, the fish populations in what had been one of the most productive areas in the country declined by 95% or more, and the loss of sediment carried downstream by the former river had major impacts on the ecosystem at the mouth of the river.
How—or whether—to deal with these impacts has been the topic of years of study and debate, but the decision was finally made to remove the dams as the most effective way to restore the Elwha. A major milestone in that process was reached last week, when a $26.9 million contract was awarded for demolition of both dams.
"This is a historic moment," said Olympic National Park Superintendent Karen Gustin. "With award of this contact, we begin the countdown to the largest dam removal and one of the largest restoration projects in U.S. history."
Only one of the two dams—Glines Canyon—is located inside Olympic National Park, but the upper reaches of the Elwha River are within the park boundary. As a result, the National Park Service has overall responsibility for the project, while other agencies have key roles. The Bureau of Reclamation, which currently operates and maintains the dams, was the lead agency in designing dam removal and sediment management strategies.
Actual work on removal of the dams won't begin for about another year. This is a very complex process, and it involves a lot more than a simple demolition project. Total cost of the Elwha Restoration Project is about $351 million, "which includes purchase of the two dams and hydroelectric plants from their previous owner, construction of two water treatment plants and other facilities to protect water users, and construction of flood protection facilities, a fish hatchery and a greenhouse to propagate native plants for revegetation."
So, what's the payoff for an admittedly expensive project?
According to the Project FAQ's, once the work is completed, salmon populations will swell from 3,000 to more than 300,000, as all five species of Pacific salmon return to more than 70 miles of river and stream. Removing the dams will also reestablish the river's natural flow of sediment from the mountains to the coast—rebuilding wetlands, beaches and the estuary at the river's mouth.
"This story is about the fish," explained Frances Charles, Chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. "The Tribe looks forward to the return of the Chinook, and the abundance of fish from the stories our ancestors have been telling us about since the dams went up. We used to have salmon and other species out there, and we want them back and revived for our children, and our children's children."
"The award of this contract represents tangible progress toward the completion of what I believe will be one of the most exciting and biologically-significant initiatives ever launched by the federal government," said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who represents Washington's 6th District, which includes the Olympic Peninsula. "The removal of the two dams and the restoration of this unique and largely protected habitat will demonstrate how these historically abundant fish runs can recover when we turn back the clock."
Once underway, the removal process will take up to three years. Removal of the dams will release an estimated 18 million cubic yards of sediment now impounded in reservoirs behind both dams, so stoppages will be built into the work schedule to limit the amount of sediment released at any given time, particularly when adult fish are in the river.
"Now that we know who the contractor is, we can begin discussions about how much public access can be provided during dam removal," remarked Gustin. "Our primary objective is safe removal of the two dams, but as much as possible, we would like to provide opportunities for people to safely visit the area and see this project for themselves."
A number of preparatory projects have already been completed or are currently underway. Facilities to protect the Port Angeles drinking and industrial water supplies were completed early this year. Improvements to flood protection levees are underway, and a fish hatchery on the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe's Reservation is now under construction to replace the tribe's existing hatchery. The new hatchery will help maintain existing stocks of Elwha River fish during dam removal and produce populations of coho, pink, and chum salmon and steelhead vital to restoration.
"As we have been appropriating funds for this project over many years, I have been encouraged that it received the consistent support of four administrations from both parties," said Dicks, who has served for his entire career on the House Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment, which funds the National Park Service. He said another $20 million was included in the appropriations bill that the Interior subcommittee approved in late July for the next fiscal year.
"There have been many Klallam people, including previous Tribal councils, who have worked hard toward reaching the milestone of removing the Elwha dams," said Charles. "The Tribe's actions toward dam removal are only following in the footsteps of our ancestors and former Tribal leaders' requests, and have included many trips to Washington D.C. The Tribe takes pride in the protection of our environment in honor of our ancestors, Elders, and future generations."
Is this project finally poised to move ahead? Back in 2004, a story in a Seattle newspaper announced, "Elwha dam removal gets final go-ahead," with removal of the dams set to begin in 2008.
Six years later, a contract has been finally awarded for the removal of the structures themselves, and supporters are confident that they're ready to see results from years of effort.
Will the final outcome justify the expense? Check back in a decade or so.