Photos by John Gussman:
The Elwha, An Environmental History
By Tim McNulty, from Olympic National Park, A Natural History
Revised edition, University of Washington Press
© 2009 by Tim McNulty
The Elwha River salmon runs were legendary. In his book Mountain in the Clouds, Bruce Brown notes that as early as 1790 the Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper recorded purchasing a number of 100 pound salmon from nearby Indians. Reports of large Elwha Chinook remained common through the early years of this century as well, and it’s estimated that at one time more than a quarter million pink salmon returned to the Elwha to spawn. The largest of Olympic National Park’s watersheds, the Elwha was undoubtedly one of the most productive. The river supported 10 distinct runs of anadromous fish, including all five species of local Pacific salmon. It was one of the few rivers in the contiguous United States that harbored all the ocean-running fish species native to the Northwest.
The Elwha flows north out of the interior Olympics into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In its lower reaches, where the river cuts through the resistant basalts of the Crescent formation, it narrows into a series of steep canyons and shoulders through a jagged notch called Goblin’s Gate. Only the most vigorous wild salmon could ascend these canyons to spawn. Records suggest that Elwha Chinook may have remained at sea longer to gain the size and strength needed to surmount the canyons. They were certainly the largest Chinook in any Olympic river. An estimated 8,000 of them spawned in the Elwha each year. Equally impressive runs of coho, pink, sockeye, and chum salmon, steelhead, sea-run cutthroat trout, char, and bull trout spawned in the Elwha’s pristine mountain waters. Estimates of historic runs in the Elwha are just under 400,000 fish annually. For the Elwha Klallam people who lived at the river’s mouth and for the wildlife populations who inhabited the 175,000 acres of the Elwha watershed, these runs were an incredible bounty as well as a dependable source of nourishment much of the year.
But in 1913, all that changed. That was the year the Olympic Power Company began operations of its Elwha Dam.
Built to provide power for a local sawmill, this was the first of two dams constructed on the lower river. In 1926, a second, the Glines Canyon Dam, was constructed several miles upstream. In spite of an 1890 Washington state statute requiring fish passage facilities on all dams, both dams formed a complete barrier to all salmon moving upstream to spawn. As early as 1911, while the Elwha Dam was still under construction, Clallam County game warden James Pike wrote the state fish commissioner. He reported “Thousands of Salmon at the foot of the Dam, where they are continually trying to get up the flume. I have watched them very close and I am satisfied now that they cannot get above the dam.” Despite Pike’s report and the protests of the Klallam people, whose very livelihood and culture was bound to the Elwha’s salmon, state officials ignored the problem. Finally, the year the dam went into operation, its owners reluctantly agreed to fund construction of a hatchery to mitigate the loss of native fish. But hatcheries were an unproven technology at that time, rife with problems. Within a decade the hatchery failed and was abandoned.
Of more than 70 miles of available spawning habitat in the Elwha watershed, only the lower five miles remain accessible to salmon today. And with the dams holding back the gravel needed to replenish spawning beds and warming impounded waters to dangerous temperatures in summer, even this short reach has become degraded. The river’s sockeye salmon are now considered to be extinct, and native chum and spring chinook are rapidly approaching extinction. The once-great runs of pink salmon have dwindled to a few dozen and are now listed as runs of critical concern. Summer steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trout are also in steep decline. Current wild fish returns to the Elwha total 3,000 to 4,000. The beneficiary of the power generated by the dams today is the Nippon U.S.A paper mill in Port Angeles; the dams supply about a third of the mill’s energy needs.
The Elwha dams were products of an era of unbridled resource exploitation in the West, a time when few considered the environmental costs of development. With the subsequent declines of Pacific salmon throughout the region, and the recent listing of several Northwest stocks under the Endangered Species Act, the true costs of such “free” sources of energy as hydropower have become apparent. As always, it is the generations that follow those early boosters who must bear the costs. Beginning in 1968 the Elwha Klallam Tribe requested that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) address the problem of fish passage on the Elwha during its relicensing proceedings. The 50-year license for the Glines Canyon Dam expired in 1976; the Elwha Dam was never licensed. In the 1980s, as part of the relicensing process, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studied the feasibility of fitting both dams with fish passage facilities. The results showed little promise. Only five of the ten original fish stocks showed any chance of recovery with the retrofitting of the dams, and the prospects for even these were poor. By contrast, studies rated the chances of restoring nine of the ten original runs as good to excellent if both dams were removed.
In 1986, the Point-No-Point Treaty Council, which represents the Elwha Klallam and other area tribes, petitioned FERC requesting the removal of both dams to restore the Elwha’s fisheries. Later that year, a coalition of environmental groups: Olympic Park Associates, Seattle Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth and Sierra Club, also intervened in the relicensing proceedings. The groups questioned FERC’s jurisdiction to license dams in national parks and petitioned that the Glines Canyon Dam, which was located entirely in the park, be removed. In the intervening years, federal agencies became convinced of the wisdom of dam removal. In 1990, a consortium of federal and tribal agencies recommended both dams be removed to fully restore the fishery (fish restoration is a condition of dam relicensing). Two years later, with the support of a broad coalition of conservationists, sportsmen, public agencies, and tribes, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. To accomplish its goal of “full restoration” of the Elwha River ecosystem and native anadromous fish, the law authorized the Department of the Interior to acquire both dams and remove them if necessary to meet this objective. In 1995, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service announced their intent to remove both dams, a visionary decision that would return one of the Northwest’s premiere salmon-producing rivers to its natural state. In 2000, the government purchased the dams, reservoirs and surrounding lands. In 2004, following years of negotiations, the park, Elwha Tribe and the City of Port Angles signed a final agreement insuring water quality and flood protection for downstream users. The actual removal of the dams, scheduled to begin in 2012, is expected to take two to three years to accomplish. Full recovery of historic fish runs may take up to 30 years. That’s a short time, really, to right a century-old wrong to a spectacular river system and the people who for thousands of years have made it their home.
The Elwha offers a rare opportunity to restore a major ecosystem to its unspoiled condition. Since the watershed lies almost entirely within Olympic National Park, the habitat degradation from industrial logging, chemical pollution, and irrigation that have stymied salmon restoration efforts elsewhere in the Northwest are not an issue. I can’t imagine another river that holds more promise, and I can think of no finer investment than freeing this magnificent river system to simply do what it does best.