For 102 years, native salmon bumped up against massive concrete hydroelectric dams on Washington state’s Elwha River, stubbornly persisting in their primitive urge to swim upstream and lay their eggs. Last week, that persistence paid off.
Habitat managers spotted Chinook salmon and bull trout in the upper reaches of that river—above the former locations of demolished 108-foot and 210-foot dams that long blocked their path to the spawning ground to which they are hardwired to return.
The arrival of these fish is being celebrated as a promising sign for the return of the river to a fully functioning ecosystem, flowing freely from its source in the Olympic Mountains all the way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Mel Elofson, an assistant habitat manager with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, was the first to spot the healthy female Chinook in the riverbank above the Glines Canyon Dam last week.
“It was pretty exciting,” said Elofson. “I was very surprised—this was only a week after the blast, and I didn’t expect to see one sitting that close to the old dam.”
He’s been surveying the fish population for a little over 20 years and grew up a quarter mile from the lower of the two dams.
“My grandmother lived on that homestead, and she walked down there as a young woman when the dams were being built and was devastated,” he said. “She used to talk about nearly being able to walk across the river on the backs of the salmon. There were tears of sadness back then, but if all the elders were alive, there would be tears of joy.”
For three years now, the two dams that plugged that waterway have been disappearing piece by piece—the largest dam removal in history, with a price tag of $325 million.
Live webcasts featured dramatic dynamiting of sections of those concrete monoliths, and time-lapses show the Elwha morphing from a river tamed to a river wild once more. At one time, this was one of the most productive fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, with salmon that could top 100 pounds.
A dam removal of this scale comes with plenty of unknowns. The sheer amount of sediment released once the barriers came down was unprecedented—some 27 million cubic yards have now flushed down through the river corridor and are beginning to form an estuary at the river mouth, creating habitat for Dungeness crabs and clams.
The return of the salmon to this 70-mile stretch of habitat will immediately bolster the biodiversity of the Elwha watershed, providing food for bears, otters, bobcats, cougar,s and mink.
Some 1,100 dams have been removed nationwide, but 80,000 remain, according to American Rivers, a nonprofit organization.
The 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha was the largest U.S. dam ever dismantled. “Even more significant than the size of the dam is the scope of the restoration potential,” said Amy Kober of American Rivers. “Most of the Elwha watershed is protected within Olympic National Park. How many chances do we get to really let a river be wild again? This is a laboratory to study how an ecosystem can rebound after dam removal.”
By all accounts the ecosystem is showing promising signs of swift recovery. Elofson reports deer and elk returning to the area that was once underwater because of the reservoirs created by the dams. He’s recently even spotted bear tracks. “There’s wisdom in letting a river be a river,” said Kober. “As we continue to see the benefits for nature, for the tribe, for surrounding communities, the Elwha will serve as an inspiration.”