Treehuggers International

Elwha Dam Removal On Track In Washington’s Olympic National Park

April 23rd, 2010

From Cape Flattery, the mountains of Vancouver Island rise above the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

While many in Western Washington are mourning the passing of KIRO weatherman Harry Wappler or the closing of Seattle’s naughty marquee landmark the Lusty Lady, there are plenty of reasons to be excited and optimistic about wilderness conservation in the Evergreen State on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

Developing stories include a proposed addition to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which just passed the U.S. House of Representatives, and a renewed Forest Service effort to determine possible year-round grizzly bear populations in the North Cascades. Here’s hoping a few silvertips are once again calling the North Cascades home.

In the meantime, Treehuggers International has been following these three key stories.

Further Preservation of the Hoh River

The Hoh River near the park boundary.

The culmination of a decade-long struggle, some 7,000 acres of the Hoh River outside of Olympic National Park have come under the protection and oversight of the Hoh River Trust, a coalition formed by the Western Rivers Conservancy and Wild Salmon Center to preserve as much of the Hoh River watershed as possible between the beach and inland components of Olympic National Park. As Lynda Mapes writes in the April 7th edition of the Seattle Times,

The groups still are seeking to acquire lands along another prime salmon tributary of the Hoh. But the core mission of protecting large swaths of private land along the river was attained this winter, with final purchase of about 2,000 acres from the Fruit Growers Supply Co.

Preservation of the landscape, mostly former industrial timberlands, provides a critical connection between lands in the upper river and the beach already within Olympic National Park.

“The park has the high country and the beach,” said Phil Davis, executive director of the Hoh River Trust. “We are connecting the dots in between.”

We at Treehuggers International offer our congratulations to the Hoh River Trust, not only for their success in “one of the largest single conservation efforts in Washington,” but also for their determination to protect, conserve, and perhaps most importantly, restore significant stretches of the Hoh River watershed outside of public land along the river’s final march to the sea. A number of these areas were the site of major timber operations, some of which ended only a few months ago.

Mt. Si and Other DNR Lands to Remain Open

Some great reward: the view of the Snoqualmie River Valley from atop Mt. Si.

Additional, albeit temporary, good news comes in the form of trails on state Department of Natural Resources land, which will remain open after a budget compromise was reached in Olympia. A proposed cut of $278,000 to the DNR budget could have meant the closure of iconic Western Washington trails like Mt. Si and Rattlesnake Mountain, both located near North Bend on either side of the Snoqualmie River Valley. Anyone who has ever done the grueling hike up Mt. Si to enjoy the stellar view from above, perhaps even the view of Downtown Seattle from the Haystack, knows the trail is one of the busiest and most popular in the region.

The downside?  The compromise only ensures the trails will remain open for another year, as official and unofficial trail maintenance falls to volunteer groups and organizations, in particular the Washington Trails Association, or WTA. Jonathan Guzzo, Advocacy Director for Washington Trails Association, wrote about the struggle to keep DNR lands open for the public in an April 13th posting on the Washington Trails Association website.

This was an uphill fight the whole way, and much of the credit is due to you. Hikers like you littered the mailboxes, inboxes and legislative hotline with compelling pleas to preserve the funding. Those who came to WTA’s Hiker Lobby Day were instrumental in raising awareness of this issue and of demonstrating that DNR lands are places that people like to hike. Thank you to all who helped make this victory possible!

But I almost hate to tell you this next thing. The restoration of recreation funding this year is only a reprieve. Once we’re done celebrating, we need to get geared up again. If we don’t find a way to provide new and sustainable funding for DNR, we’re going to find ourselves back in the same spot next year.

Further proof writing letters and stomping your feet so those in Olympia, and in the words of Harvey Manning, those in “the other Washington” can hear you, works. While not all solutions are permanent or as long-lasting as a Wilderness or National Park designation, when politicians can’t hear you, they don’t care. Build upon the little, day-to-day victories.

Removal of Elwha River Dams to Begin In 2011

The Elwha Dam in March 2007, with Lake Aldwell behind it.

A long-term solution we at Treehuggers International are particularly excited about is the impending removal of the Elwha River dams in Olympic National Park. In what will be the largest engineering undertaking in the history of the National Park Service and the largest dam removal effort ever in the U.S., the project is already serving as a precursor to the eventual removal of dams along the mighty Snake and Klamath rivers. Preliminary work on removing the Elwha River dams is due to begin next year.

The Elwha flows north out of the Olympic Mountains into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, separating the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island.  For centuries, through the history of the Klallam people to the arrival of the Europeans, the Elwha was one of the greatest salmon-producing rivers in North America, laying claim to Pacific salmon like coho, pink, chum, and sockeye, along with steelhead trout, cutthroat trout, and bull trout. Before the first phase of the Elwha Dam was completed in 1910, approximately 400,000 salmon returned to the river each year to spawn in over 70 miles of the Elwha and its tributaries.  Pink salmon and coho were particularly robust in the river, spawning to nearly the Elwha’s headwaters in the glacial high country of the Olympic Mountains.

The Elwha Dam was originally constructed to provide cheap hydroelectricity to sawmills in Port Angeles, then busily eviscerating the pride of Olympic forests into 2 x 4s and shingles for San Francisco, which was undergoing a massive re-building effort following the 1906 earthquake and fire. Sadly, in the haste to build it, the original Elwha Dam was a comedy of colossal, ecologically-tragic errors. Littered with construction shortcuts, including an absence of fish ladders (despite a request to include them from the Washington state fish comissioner), the dam wasn’t even adequately secured to the bedrock walls of the valley with sufficient anchoring and grouting, resulting in a partial collapse of the original structure in 1912 when portions of the side and bottom of the dam were washed downstream.

The Lake Mills reservoir behind Glines Canyon Dam.

The dam as it stands today was completed in 1913, and from that moment effectively sealed off nearly 40 miles of the Elwha River and about another 30 miles of Elwha tributaries to salmon, decimating the run.  Today, fewer than 4,000 salmon return to spawn in the lower seven miles of the river below the Elwha Dam.

The area around the Elwha Dam also served as the Klallam nation’s only inland village, as well as their tribal creation site, all of which wound up 90 feet underwater with the formaton of Lake Aldwell, the reservoir behind Elwha Dam.

The higher Glines Canyon Dam, also known as the Upper Elwha Dam, was completed in 1926, further sealing the fate of the native salmon and fish population. Though left outside of the original National Park boundary in 1938, a major addition to the park two years later brought the Upper Elwha and its reservoir, Lake Mills, into park service oversight, a terrible irony as Olympic National Park was intended to preserve only natural ecosystems and the natural conditions of the Olympic Peninsula.

By the time of the 1940 park expansion, the Elwha was already three decades into a murderous strangulation of the river’s native salmon, and coupled with sediment build-up behind the dams and a lack of organic material from the decomposing bodies of salmon to nourish other organisms in the river, by the early 1990s the Elwha had long been relegated to a tragic shell of its former self.

With the reality of the Elwha’s dire ecological situation, erosion of clam beds at the mouth of the Elwha, increased erosion at Port Angeles Harbor due to a lack of river-transported sediment, decreased ability of the antiquated dams to produce hydroelectricity, and ongoing concerns about construction shortcuts in the original Elwha Dam structure, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992, beginning the process leading to the removal of the dams starting in 2011. As Les Blumenthal wrote in the April 12th edition of The Olympian,

The dams won’t be blown up, but deliberately dismantled over roughly three years so the 19 million cubic yards of silt, gravel and rock behind them can be flushed downstream gradually.

Once the dams are down, it may take 10 years to re-establish the runs. Some salmon will be flown by helicopter to the upper reaches of the Elwha watershed. The initial runs will include what native fish remain and those raised in a nearby hatchery. Eventually, the runs are expected to become wild.

Scientists say that if the salmon runs can’t be restored on the Elwha, they can’t be restored anywhere.

More than 85 percent of the river’s salmon habitat is in Olympic National Park, remote backcountry even now barely touched by humans.

While the majority of the Elwha River is preserved within Olympic National Park upriver from Glines Canyon, removing the two dams, now approaching 100 years in age, is not without some risk. The dam removal will surely, though temporarily, increase the amount of silt in the river. The volume of sediment which has collected behind the Elwha dams over the last 100 years is estimated to be about 18 million cubic yards. To head off the expected flooding and increased silt in Port Angeles and for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, a new water treatment plant has been constructed in anticipation of the soon-to-be-released Elwha.

The thought of renewing the once great salmon runs and bringing the Elwha River back to life from its ignominious slow strangulation is enticing, and cause of celebration.  It won’t be long before the Elwha again flows freely into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and it’s valleys and tributaries begin the process of rehabilitation. Should the Elwha rehabilitation be a success, its easy to see how the engineering and conservation lessons learned could, in addition to the Snake and Klamath rivers, also be applied to the long-standing environmental wrong done to Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley.

How fitting then, on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we look to the release of the Tuolomne River and the removal of the O’Shaughnessy Dam as a goal to build upon with the removal of the Elwha dams. For John Muir, who spent his last years fighting a brutally uphill battle for a man haf his age to keep the O’Shaughnessy Dam from being built at Hetch Hetchy, there would be no better ending or sense of justice. After all, April 22nd was selected as Earth Day in part to honor the memory of John Muir, whose birthday falls the day before, on April 21st.

We at Treehuggers International want to wish you a happy Earth Day, and thank you for your support and words of enthusiasm as we move into our fourth year. Happy Earth Day.

Summertime in the high country of the Olympic Mountains, near Hurricane Ridge.

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