After its dams came down, a river is reborn

A look at the Elwha unleashed.

The Elwha River starts at Dodwell-Rixon Pass, a high crack in Washington’s Olympic Mountains. There, a hiker who crossed would find the Elwha Snowfinger, formed by heavy winter storms and the avalanches that pour off the surrounding mountainsides. Wedged into a steep-walled gully, it forms the upper reaches of the Elwha basin. If the hiker followed this snow down, eventually she’d find a stream, and that stream would widen and become the Elwha River. As she traveled down, as more streams joined its flow, she would find one of those messy rivers that characterize the Pacific Northwest: Wide, braided channels, scattered with logs and boulders, gravel bars strewn with detritus, a sense of a landscape half-finished. Then the river would round a corner and flow out into an area of high gravel banks stretching on for yards, dozens of feet above the water. These are what’s left of Lake Mills, one of two reservoirs that once trapped the Elwha.


On a nippy November day, I look over the remains of Glines Canyon Dam, which formed Lake Mills, with sediment researcher Andy Ritchie. Snow has already begun to collect on the higher slopes; in the path of the wind whistling out of the river canyon, we struggle to talk without chattering teeth. Ritchie is introducing me to one of the largest experiments in ecosystem repair ever undertaken: Beginning in 2011, the federal government removed this dam and one lower down, blasting them away bit by bit over three years. Dozens of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, University of Washington and the National Park Service, along with universities across the country, have since documented how that removal affected sediment in the water, small mammals, salmon, birds and the ocean the river flows into.

Ritchie’s job was to watch the river’s every move from Lake Mills, past the Elwha Dam site, to the river’s mouth at the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Ocean.

“The dam removal dwarfs anything done before,” Ritchie says. A river trapped by a dam is predictable. But undammed rivers carry immense force in the form of sediment, logs and flows that can change course and volume rapidly and violently. He shows me how the freed Elwha dug up part of Lake Mills’ bed and deposited it in front of the dam. Then it carved that new bed into huge stairlike gravel banks, finding its way into old channels but also slashing new ones here and far downstream.

“It was impressive,” Ritchie says. The river’s vigor surprised even the project designers and engineers, moving far more of the lakebed than predicted, devouring swaths of land and choking its own fish with fine sediments.

As the Elwha awoke from dormancy, what Ritchie and others found was not an orderly reassembling of the ecosystem that had been here before, but the emergence of a chaotic and wild river, whose movements were difficult to forecast and impossible to control. It’s a hybrid wildness: Even with the dams gone, warming seas are taking a toll on the river’s salmon, and construction has altered its banks. But the return of this unpredictable river offers a lesson for others looking to down dams that have passed their prime. In this wildness is resilience. Slowly, with human aid, the river is carving itself a new form with a better chance of weathering disruptions, including climate change. A new Elwha, unleashed.


Andy Ritchie, sediment researcher for the Elwha Restoration Project, stands on a stump that was exposed after the Elwha Dam came down and Lake Aldwell drained. Old-growth forests were cut in the 1900s before the dam was constructed.
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times

Before the dams, the Elwha flowed out of the mountains, down a deep canyon, past rich bottomlands and grassy hills near its mouth. In 1880, the Washington Standard described it as one of those “rapid, cold mountain streams abounding with trout.” All five Pacific salmon species spawned in its waters, sustaining the economy of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. As many as 17,000 chinook returned each fall, along with 96,000 pink salmon. One week in early September 1893, a fisherman reportedly caught nine wagon-loads of salmon in a single net — about 3,000 fish.

That all changed in the early 1900s, when the Elwha Dam severed the river’s headwaters from the ocean. The Olympic Power and Development Company built the dam during an era of rapid infrastructure expansion and economic change. The electricity it provided helped industrialize the town of Port Angeles, Washington, powering mills that processed logs from the forests of the Olympic Peninsula. The Elwha Dam’s success led to the construction, in 1927, of the Glines Canyon Dam upstream.

Neither dam had any kind of fish passage, in violation of state law. The river’s 45 miles were sliced down to just five. In the 1980s, the Lower Elwha Klallam, whose reservation sits at the river’s mouth, began to defend their treaty rights to the Elwha’s fish, pushing for the dams’ removal. Congress determined that the fishery would have to be fully restored and the destruction of the dams, rather than fish passage or mitigation, proved the only way to do that. In 2001, the government purchased the dams with the intention of removing them. It took a decade to actually do so.

When the Elwha’s dams came down, the removal of many other Western dams seemed likely. In some cases, the cost of bringing aging dams up to date exceeded the profit from the electricity they generated. Environmental concerns became unavoidable as fisheries faltered. And tribes increasingly asserted their sovereignty and pushed back against long-standing violations of treaty agreements.

A camera captures the Glines Canyon Dam deconstruction and subsequent revegetation from September 2011 to July 2016.
NPS/USBR/USGS/Elwha Restoration Project

While the political climate regarding dams has shifted under President Donald Trump, more removals are likely in coming years. In Utah, officials removed the 14-foot-tall Mill Creek Dam, as part of an effort to restore Bonneville cutthroat trout. In August, crews began removing Cline Falls Dam on the Deschutes River near Redmond, Oregon. And the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Klamath tribes have secured a deal to remove four large dams on the Klamath River in southeast Oregon and Northern California, starting in 2020 — a project that will surpass even the Elwha in scale.

The Elwha remains one of the most closely watched removals. In the past, most research has focused on isolated elements of what happens after a river returns, rather than the ecosystem’s overall response. As early as the 1990s, researchers discussed treating the Elwha as a “living laboratory”; they began to monitor the river prior to dam removal, accumulating over a decade of data. Every few years at the Elwha River Science Symposium, many of them share findings, plan further research and collaborate. There have been surprises along the way: For example, a debris dam formed behind a pile of rockfall from early in the dam’s existence, blocking fish passage and slowing sediment movement. In May, Elwha researchers and officials met with Klamath-area researchers, officials and tribal representatives to discuss what insights they might draw from the Elwha.

A camera captures the changes of the river's course on former Lake Mills from January 2012 to March 2017.
NPS/USBR/USGS/Elwha Restoration Project

Ritchie’s research has provided some of those lessons. He was a last-minute hire, added to keep up with the river’s dynamics on a daily basis. Ritchie, a stocky, scruffy Washington native, grew up along the Elwha; his first memory of the river is of his father carrying him there in a backpack. When he got his driver’s license, he used it to go straight to the Elwha and fish. He calls the river his muse, talks about it like a sentient creature: “When my heartbeat matches her heaving breath at Goblin’s Gate / And tumbling boulders shake polished upturned teeth of slate,” he wrote of the Elwha in one poem, “I know I’m home.”

When Ritchie joined the Elwha project, his tools were rudimentary: 20 gauges placed along the river’s 45-mile length and handheld lasers and GPS to measure the river’s width. But he quickly realized that he could construct a more complete model of its movements by mounting a pair of cameras on the bottom of a plane and taking aerial photographs at rapid intervals. Over the course of five years and more than 100 flights, he collected countless pictures of the river’s flows. On-the-ground work detailed the amount of sediment suspended in the water and deposited on the river bottom. The result is a month-by-month reconstruction of the river’s wild movements, which have so far shifted 22 million tons of sediment downstream.

While the dams were in, the river ran in a straight and narrow channel. “You can think of sediment and wood as tools the river uses to shape and reshape the channel,” Ritchie says. The logs it carries can redirect its flow and build new banks; sediment builds up in the channel and flushes out to the ocean to form beaches and estuaries. Without these forces, the water dug a rocky chute, and the forest formed a skeleton that calcified the river’s course. With them, Ritchie found that the river quickly returned to its old, winding ways.

Below Lake Mills, it has whipped back and forth repeatedly, eating up two campgrounds and a road. At one site, an outhouse stands watch over a loop road that abruptly ends in a two-foot dropoff where the river ripped away several campsites. The National Park Service was forced to permanently close the popular campgrounds; it plans to rebuild one elsewhere. This spring, it began investigating moving the road to former Lake Mills to avoid a repeat washout. The Elwha “is reoccupying its historic floodplain,” Ritchie says. “Some would say ‘with a vengeance.’ I would say ‘with enthusiasm.’ ”


Downstream, where the Elwha Dam once formed Lake Aldwell, the forest that marked the reservoir’s edge is creeping back over its now-dry bed. I visit on a rainy November morning with a group of researchers from the Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. We step between young willows and dogwoods to the edge of a gravel precipice. Here, the river has cut through the sediment to reveal the stumps of trees felled before the dams were built. As we slide down the loose face, I note old tree trunks wider than my armspan. The notches where loggers stuck springboards to stand on and saw are still visible high on the stumps.

While the river is reshaping the landscape, people are working to restore an intact ecosystem on the lakebeds. Researchers from the tribe and park botanists have seeded over 400,000 native plants in the footprints of Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell, from Douglas fir to crabapple and dogwood. Plants have started to come back on their own, too, carried by the critters reoccupying this spot. Birds fly out of the scruffy new growth on the banks and perch on the scattered logs, some placed expressly for that purpose. They poop out seeds that germinate and grow in the leeward side of the logs, little gardens protected from the wind.

“These former reservoirs look quite barren but there’s a lot of life coming back to them,” says Rebecca McCaffery, a USGS wildlife researcher. The two restoration efforts — one conducted by researchers, the other by non-human residents — do not always work in concert: elk and deer have returned to the lakebed too, browsing down the native plants that researchers are trying to get rooted in some plots. But it’s a benevolent competition: “Ultimately, elk and deer are not the bad guys,” McCaffery says. “They’re just shaping the architecture of the system.”

The river itself is delivering another source of flora: the seeds it is once again carrying downstream. This phenomenon, known as hydrochory, helps the riparian plant community maintain a diversity of species and genes. Studies conducted prior to dam removal found that there were 90 percent fewer seeds in the water below Glines Canyon Dam than above, and 84 percent fewer species represented. After the dam came down, the numbers equalized all along the channel.

Other mammals have started to return, too. Kim Sager-Fradkin, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s chief biologist, has seen otters moving more freely around the old lakebeds, as well as smaller, hard-to-track creatures like ermines, bushy-tailed woodrats and mice.

The lakebed is quiet when we visit: I see one mouse, but no other animals, and the overcast weather mutes the greenery. But that dormant appearance belies an environment in flux, one that occasionally stymies research efforts. “I’m working in an environment that’s more temporally active,” Sager-Fradkin says. Before the dams went, winter storms were the only things that disrupted research plots and access trails with fallen trees, floods or landslides. “Now, it could be anytime.”


Sediment built up at the mouth of the Elwha River in May 2016. More than 20 million tons of sediment have been released and flushed down the river from the old dam lakebeds.
John Gussman

Last year, biologists spotted chinook, steelhead, coho, bull trout and sockeye spawning upstream of the Glines Canyon Dam site for the first time in nearly a century. Pacific lamprey have returned unaided. And salmon have already begun to reshape the river’s ecosystem: The diets of American dippers, little bobbing birds that feed on insects and fish eggs, already show traces of the marine nutrients that salmon carry upstream.

But biologists always knew that this comeback would be stuttering and potentially incomplete. As resilient as rivers are, 100 years’ worth of damage is not so easy to roll back. And when the Elwha began muscling away decades of accumulated debris, the destruction it unleashed was shocking.

In the dim morning hours of a cool April day in 2013, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife-run hatchery released nearly 200,000 juvenile chinook salmon into the Elwha just a few miles from the river mouth. Similar releases of chinook, coho, pink and chum salmon take place each year from two hatcheries operated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. They’re intended to ensure that the fish populations survive the sediment pulses and eventually provide a financially viable fishery.

But the river that in the morning had been just murky was by evening thick with sediment, as it swelled into flood. Over the next week, people found dead smolts piled by the hundreds like used matches on the river’s banks; they had stranded as the waters retreated, suffocated as their gills choked with grit, or starved when the turbid waters made it impossible to hunt. It’s unlikely that many made it to the sea.

The Elwha was loosed to save its imperiled fish. But the river’s new upsets have hit those fish the hardest.

They “were really subjected to some hostile conditions,” says Patrick Crain, fisheries biologist for Olympic National Park. Even now, many salmon populations are likely to decline — or at least stay flat — as the generations most impacted by dam removal begin to return. Crain estimates it could be five years or more before populations truly begin to rebound and many more to reach anything approaching pre-dam levels.

Even that will depend on factors far beyond the river’s bounds. The same year as the catastrophic die-off, a mass of unusually warm water formed off the Pacific coast. The high temperatures decimated the cold-water nutrients that salmon and steelhead rely on. The “Blob,” as it was called, began to dissipate last year, but the spawning salmon from Washington to California were few and underweight.

Still, the fish will have a bit more of an edge in a world that is changing around them. On the Elwha, “the future, even with climate change, is going to be much, much better for salmon,” says Nate Mantua, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher who studies the impacts of climate change and the Blob on salmon. Temperatures in some stretches of the river were already rising, due to the reservoirs; with the dams in, the hot, shallow river may have proved fatal. Now, the river will run faster and cooler — better for cold-loving fish as climate change advances. And as populations stabilize and climb, their greater numbers will help ensure they weather the floods and sediment events that are part of the river’s natural cycle. “We got those dams out just in time,” says Anne Schaffer, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife researchers net chinook salmon from the Elwha in 2012. They will bring the fish back to a hatchery to strip the eggs, then raise brood stock to supplement natural populations in the river.
John Gussman

From the messy Glines Canyon Dam site, Andy Ritchie and I drive to the Elwha’s mouth, north of Port Angeles. There, we walk out along a shady dike, one of a few manmade barricades still standing; a matching dike intended to stop erosion has been moved and larger boulders removed to allow the beach to naturally rebuild. At the end of the dike, we see that it has done just that. Sand stretches north and south where boulders and debris once repelled surfers, swimmers and fishermen, as well as crabs, rockfish and kelp. And the sediment that flowed downstream has settled to form a 150-hectare estuary.

Despite the chilly wind, a lone surfer waits for a wave that now regularly breaks near the mouth. Families stroll up and down and a seal cruises by, peering at the beachcombers. Clouds of birds drift overhead, disturbed by waves and walkers, then resettle in bobbing flocks on the water.

In an era of grim stories about the non-human world, Ritchie finds reason for hope in today’s understated show. “Our planet’s history is punctuated by disturbance and recovery,” he says. “Just because we have a bunch of impacts currently happening and a lot of infrastructure, it doesn’t preclude opportunities for restoration.”

And the Elwha is doing exactly what it is supposed to. “Life strives to grow and increase complexity, so much like the Elwha,” he says. “Isn’t that the goal for life? To go against its boundaries.”

These photo compilations follow the Elwha from source to sea in 2012, after the Elwha Dam was removed, and in 2017. The images were compiled from about 1,000 aerial photos taken with a camera mounted on a Cessna. See more photo compilations of the Elwha as it recovered here.

Note: An earlier version of this story described the cliff having collapsed as the dam was taken down. In fact, much of the rockfall occurred early in the 20th century.

Kate Schimel is the deputy editor-digital at High Country News. 

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.


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