The History and Importance of the Elwha River

Lonesome Larry Elwha River Delta

Lonesome Larry stands at the Elwha River delta, where the sediments from the newly freed Elwha River arehard at work restoring the delta. Photo by Joanna Guild.

Part 1 in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 2.

By Steve Guild, IRU Summer Intern

Lonesome Larry Elwha River

Lonesome Larry looks upstream toward the Elwha River’s origins.

In September 2011 more than 100 people gathered on the bank of the Elwha River to celebrate the largest dam removal project in history. Both the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams would be removed to make way for migrating salmon and steelhead.

Now, two years later, one of the dams is gone and the other 75 percent removed, and the salmon have responded. Migrating salmon began passing the old site of Elwha dam almost immediately upon its removal.

This week, Lonesome Larry is traveling to the Olympic Peninsula to gather a first-fish account of what happened on the Elwha River and how lessons learned there can be applied to the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state where the science is clear—four dams there are the most significant impediment to the survival of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead.

Following federal district Judge James Redden’s August 2011 rejection of the latest federal salmon recovery plan for Idaho fish, it’s time to bring key salmon players together to begin a collaborative process that finds lasting solutions to this decades-old problem.

The Elwha

As in the upper Snake River basin in Idaho, the Elwha River Basin on the Olympic Peninsula has been home to salmon and steelhead for thousands of years. These fish support the ecosystem by providing nutrients to water and soil. The soil and water grow plants, which support a wide variety of animals both large and small. Each part of a healthy ecosystem supports the others, preventing overpopulation as well as removing the weak and sick. This was the natural life of the Elwha, in which salmon are the keystone species.

A keystone species is a plant or animal around which a whole ecosystem is built. Without the keystone species an entire ecosystem could collapse. As water runs out to the ocean it takes with it nutrients from the headwaters. Salmon nourish the system. Without salmon returning and dying to feed the river and surrounding land, the system would eventually weaken and support less and less life. A few studies centered on the Olympic Peninsula help illustrate the point.

In 1988 C. Jeff Cederholm highlighted the importance of salmon in research tracking the nutrients of 945 coho salmon. To do this Cederholm and his team placed coho carcasses along seven streams on the Olympic Peninsula. During their research they recorded 43 species of mammals and birds present and found that 51 percent of them fed on the coho carcasses.

Further research by Sarah Morley and Jeff Duda from 2004-2006 documented that in reaches of rivers accessible to salmon nitrogen levels were higher than in areas blocked by dams. Nitrogen is a fundamental building block in organic life, and its presence in the ecosystem signifies health.

In a seperate survey conducted in 2006-2008 Morley and her team placed salmon carcasses in side channels of rivers inaccessible to salmon and found that nitrogen levels in the surrounding plants and animals became elevated. These nitrogen levels remained significantly elevated for three months and were detectable in many levels of the food chain from algae and insects to juvenile fish. Areas in which the carcasses were placed had growth rates 300 percent higher than in areas only 600 feet upstream.

The Elwha’s ecosystem was put to the test in 1890 when Thomas Aldwell arrived in Port Angeles at the mouth of the Elwha. Aldwell had come with a singular focus on development to take advantage of the natural abundance of the area.

Like many towns of the era Port Angeles lacked electricity, limiting its potential for industrial growth. Aldwell knew that building a hydroelectric dam on the Elwha River would increase the prosperity of the town. The Elwha Dam worked. Energy brought in paper mills, ship yards, lumber mills and other forms of industry that in turn provided employment. Energy demand was so high that a second dam was built 8.6 miles upstream at Glines Canyon. But the dams quickly aged and were rapidly outdated. The benefits they provided were quickly overshadowed by the toll they inflicted on the Olympic Peninsula’s native wild salmon.

From the beginning there were people who doubted the dams’ viability. The bottom of Elwha Dam, for example, was not anchored into the ground. Rather, it was built on bedrock and was referred to by some as a “dam on roller-skates.” Before the reservoir was filled for the first time the bottom of the dam blew out from the pressure of water behind it. Even after being repaired Elwha Dam always leaked. While some removal advocacy groups rallied around Elwha Dam’s instability others rallied around the cause of anadromous fish. Even as pressure to remove the dams grew, dam owners and the government seemed to strengthen their resolve.

Crown Zellerbach Corporation, one of the owners of Elwha Dam, defended its existence in filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a license to run the dam.

“The dam and reservoir have become an integral part of the environment… and has very little direct or indirect detrimental effect on the ecology of the land, air, and water environment,” the company said in its FERC filing. For several years the status quo seemed inevitable.

In 1986 the Federal Power Act was amended to require that FERC give fish and wildlife protection, mitigation and enhancement equal consideration with economic need and power production when considering the viability of power projects.

Dam opposition groups saw an opportunity. If they could prove that there was significant damage created by the dams, perhaps they could work for their removal. Public interest groups began pressuring FERC to include a cost-benefit analysis within its next Environmental Impact Statement.

In 1991 FERC released the EIS for relicensing the two dams. The document included a cost-benefit analysis that clearly showed it would be cheaper to remove the dams than to alter them to adhere to the new environmental standards.

That was the beginning of the end for the Elwha dams. With distinct benefits to be gained by restoring the native anadromous fishery and the dams not pulling their own weight economically, the stage was set for dam removal.

Check in with Larry on Facebook for updates and photos from the Elwha River Basin.

Part 1 in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 2.

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