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

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Aldwell kept newspaper articles about the dam-building project in a scrapbook, now housed at the University of Washington. The clippings chart fundraising battles, ground-breaking celebrations, and the accidental blowout of the first dam in 1912, which flooded Lower Klallam houses and flung fish into trees. The scrapbook itself was produced by United Business Service. Its motto is stamped on the dark brown cover: "A man's judgment is no better than his imagination."

Aldwell's imagination was a product of his times, framed by manifest destiny. The 21st century's cultural imagination includes melting icecaps and parched earth. But it also holds, at least on the part of the Elwha scientists, great hopes for restoration, whether of individual species or ecosystem function.

For Robert Elofson, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam and project director for the tribe's restoration program, success would be a river similar to the one that was lost, the one that played such a large role in the life of the tribe. "You could honestly say that our hopes are to return the river to the state it was before the dams were built," he says. "I think we stand a very good chance."

George Pess of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center looks forward to hiking to the upper Elwha and encountering salmon. And not just seeing them: "The smell of decaying salmon in places that haven't smelled like that in a hundred years -- it's something you won't forget," he says. The salmon, to him, are not just individual fish, but nutrient delivery systems, taking protein from the ocean and bringing it, in the form of flesh and bone, into the high forests when they die after spawning. "People think of it as the smell of death," he says, "but it's actually the smell of life."

Though McHenry is critical of parts of the plan and worries about lack of monitoring funds, when asked if he has a model river restoration he hopes the Elwha will emulate, he pauses for a moment and looks at the churning water: "I guess I'm hoping this will be the model. Even though it's imperfect."

Kim Todd writes about science and the environment. Her third book, Sparrow, will be out early next year.

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