Rebuilding a river as Washington's Elwha dams come down

by Kim Todd

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?

Walking to the mouth of the Elwha River, Mike McHenry, a fisheries habitat biologist for the Lower Elwha Klallam, a tribe with a reservation on the lower river, wheels and holds up a piece of paper. "Before you even take a look at the river, look at this." A 1930s aerial photo shows a wide, branching river winding through forested islands before spilling over a beach that, McHenry says, was filled with shellfish.

"Flash forward to today." The river is now a single brown current, racing toward the strait. The dams lacked fish ladders, so salmon couldn't migrate upstream past the first five miles of the river, and they siphoned off the small boulders, dirt and huge logs that would have helped slow the current and create spawning beds. The river was left studded with large rocks, emptying onto a beach now too stony for the clams the tribe relied on.

McHenry's office computer is filled with historical photos, including a 1920s picture of a grinning Ernest Sampson Sr., a tribal member, with a chinook slung over his shoulder. The fish is so large that its tail touches the ground. By then, however, the river was already locked in its slow decline. Pink salmon populations crashed midcentury. The spring run chinook dwindled and the monster fish disappeared, even in stories. Sockeye were extirpated. Now, three of the river's species are listed under the Endangered Species Act: Puget Sound chinook, bull trout and Puget Sound steelhead.

To help the fish, the three-year-long dam removal has built-in "windows" when sediment flow will be halted so salmon can spawn in water not choked with dirt. McHenry and his technicians (including Sampson's grandson) are also building 50 log jams, stacking huge tree trunks and lashing them together with cables to trap sediment and create pools for salmon. Some of these will eventually form islands that provide shelter for mink and roosts for bald eagles, McHenry hopes.

In addition, as Lake Mills empties, Olympic National Park fisheries biologist Sam Brenkman and his crew have been catching bull trout so they can be helicoptered upstream out of harm's way. They marked about 30 with radio transmitters, so as the dams come down, biologists can track whether the fish are finding spots to persevere, competing with newcomers from downstream, or making their way to the ocean now that the barriers are gone. Brenkman and others snorkeled the entire length of the river several years ago, counting fish and charting habitat to gain a baseline for comparison when the dams come out. "We're setting the stage. No one's really done this kind of work before," he says. They'll do a follow-up survey in 2014, if funding permits.

The vanished reservoirs will leave behind bowls of mud at risk of being taken over by weeds. A native plant nursery will provide seedlings so botanists can rush in ahead of invasives like reed canarygrass and Scotch broom to plant common snowberry and Nootka rose.

The goal is not to recreate snapshots from long ago, according to Joshua Chenoweth, botanical restorationist for the park, but rather to provide flexibility in the face of an uncertain future: "There are so many variables, our concern isn't whether it turns into a Douglas-fir forest or a hemlock forest." But any kind of forest might be hard to grow. The exposed ground, in some cases, will be just sand and gravel. Few young trees will take root in it, even species like red alder, which are some of the first to appear at disturbed sites.

In the future, due to climate change, the river may be warmer and slower, fed more by rainstorms than snowmelt, attracting a different suite of species than were there a hundred years ago or requiring existing species to adopt new life histories. The ability to survive in the face of disturbance is termed "resilience," and it is one of the major goals of restoration projects like this one. Large numbers and genetic diversity both help a species persist.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the Elwha Fish Restoration Plan, put together by the park, the tribe, the state and NOAA, is the use of hatchery fish, particularly a non-native strain, the Chambers Creek steelhead, which matures more quickly than its native counterpart. Hatchery fish have a lower survival rate and carry disease, and may put the resilience of wild fish at risk. Restoration money funded a new hatchery for the tribe, which, together with a state facility, will raise chinook, coho, steelhead, chum and pink salmon to be released, some right at the hatcheries, some in the other reaches of the river, before, during, and perhaps even after dam removal.

Larry Ward, manager of the new tribal hatchery, says the hatcheries will increase stocks for tribal members who rely on fish for their livelihood. The Lower Elwha Klallam have already made concessions by agreeing to a five-year fishing moratorium on the river, he notes. Though scientists might consider the river a natural laboratory to study wild fish, he adds, it isn't: "There are not really stocks on the river that haven't been influenced by the hatchery at some point."

Some biologists think salmon will recolonize the river naturally and don't need help. Farther upriver, McHenry points out one of the river's side channels. Not far from the raging, muddy body of the Elwha, a clear stream cuts through the brush; small stones and gravel line its bed. It's good spawning ground. "If you're a fish in here," he says, picking up stones, "you got a good chance of surviving dam removal."

Those who want to track wild fish after the dams come down face obstacles besides hatchery interference. Even with the $325 million and all the studies under way, money for post-dam-removal monitoring is in short supply. So far, scientists and agencies have been patching together smaller grants year by year, hoping to study how the ecosystem responds to salmon recolonizing, how species interact, how the forest regenerates or doesn't regenerate. According to McHenry, "We've made great progress ... but it doesn't look like we're going to have the resources to carry it all the way through. My biggest fear is that we won't be able to answer some of the questions that society's going to want to know. ... That would be a failure of this project in my mind."



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.

© High Country News