Rebuilding a river as Washington's Elwha dams come down

  • The original channel of the Elwha River and the east abutment of Elwha Dam.

    Jason Jaacks
  • Glines Canyon Dam on Washington’s Elwha River, before the dam comes down (left), and an artist’s conception of what it might look like afterward.

    National Park Service
  • Bald eagles at the sediment-starved mouth of the Elwha River.

    Jason Jaacks
  • A returning chinook salmon swims beneath the spillway, stopped in its trip up the river by the Elwha Dam.

    Jason Jaacks
  • A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist measures a coho salmon fingerling in the Elwha River as part of a fish monitoring program prior to dam removal.

    Jason Jaacks
 

In his autobiography, Conquering the Last Frontier, Olympic Peninsula pioneer Thomas Aldwell described his first encounter with the land that would be his legacy: "Below the cabin was a canyon through which the Elwha River thundered, and 75 feet or so in front of it was a spring of crystal clear water, overhung by vine maples. ... that spring embodied all of life and beauty I thought I'd ever want."

The Elwha runs fast and steep, from its headwaters in Washington's Olympic National Park to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At the time that Aldwell stood on the banks, salmon swam its length, including 100-pound monster chinook. In the push of current, he saw not just beauty and fish, but power -- power to light a town, to attract industry, to put Port Angeles on the map. He bought the land, and in 1913, the Olympic Power Development Company, Aldwell's brainchild, completed the Elwha Dam.

Now Lake Aldwell is draining like a dirty bathtub, leaving thin silt coating tree stumps, roots, the odd tin plate. The floodgates are open. Water roars through the canyon again, stained brown by sediment already leaching from behind the dam.

On Sept. 17, with the removal of ceremonial chunks of concrete, both the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam, built further upriver in 1927, began to come down. A century after they were built, they powered only 40 percent of a single paper mill, the last one in Port Angeles. The toll on struggling salmon runs no longer seemed worth it. Started in 1992 by the Elwha River Ecosystem and Restoration Act and finally put in motion with the help of $54 million in federal stimulus funds, the $325 million restoration will be the second-largest in the National Park Service system, after the Everglades. The removal of Glines Canyon Dam, 210 feet high, will be the biggest dam decommissioning in the United States.

In some ways, the Elwha is a perfect test case for restoration science, a chance to see and document exactly what happens when a big dam comes down. Because much of the river is on protected national park land, there's no development or pollution to complicate restoration. "We really only have, at least on the upper part of the watershed, one major problem -- the dams," says George Pess, leader of NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center restoration effectiveness team.

Restoration needs good experiments. It is a young field, striving to become more of a science after years of projects done haphazardly, without much monitoring or thought for the larger picture. There is money and need and desire for restoration, but only now a developing sense of what really works.

The idea of letting the river find its natural course and studying the outcome is attractive, but not everyone has the stomach for it. Park and tribal biologists are scrambling to anticipate the effects of the increased flow and the mudslide of sediment -- 18 million cubic yards worth -- as the dams come down. The flood of dirt and rock, now piled in the lakes behind the dams, will kill most of the fish in the river below, according to NOAA's 2008 Elwha Fish Restoration plan.

It raises several questions: How much should the river define the terms of its re-emergence, in the process providing scientists with a living laboratory? How much should biologists and engineers encourage it to take the shape they want? What is a desirable shape for a wild river? And how, with so little of the project money earmarked for monitoring, would anyone know?

High Country News Classifieds
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!