14 Oct 2013: Report

The Ambitious Restoration of
An Undammed Western River

With the dismantling of two dams on Washington state’s Elwha River, the world’s largest dam removal project is almost complete. Now, in one of the most extensive U.S. ecological restorations ever attempted, efforts are underway to revive one of the Pacific Northwest’s great salmon rivers.

by caroline fraser

Along the Elwha River on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, the largest dam removal project in the world is nearing completion. The scale of the undertaking is on display as a National Park Service employee unlocks a fence guarding a colossal construction crane looming over what is left of the Glines Canyon Dam, which once rose 210 feet above the river. A narrow, vertiginous walkway, which will eventually serve as a visitors’ viewpoint, ends in mid-air above a yawning 150-foot-wide chasm cut in the
Elwha Dam breach
Elwha River Restoration Project/NPS
Demolition of the Elwha Dam began in 2011 and was completed last year.
concrete. Below, the unleashed river roars across what’s left of the structure. Upstream, the view is dominated by a vast bowl of sediment, the bottom of former Lake Mills.

The remains of the Glines Canyon Dam are located 13 river miles from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the passage from the Pacific Ocean to Puget Sound. Eight miles downstream, the Elwha dam — built a century ago without accommodation for fish passage and long reviled by Native Americans and fishermen — is already gone, demolished in 2011 and 2012.

With the river now flowing freely, the legendary salmon runs — blocked for a century — have begun a tentative return to the Elwha’s 70 miles of salmon habitat, much of it in Olympic National Park. It is the dream of restorationists to bring back these extraordinary fish to the Elwha, most of
The demolition of the dams is an evolving experiment that entails the restoration of an entire watershed.
which remains pristine, shaded by the gargantuan old-growth firs and cedars and primeval ferns for which the Olympic Mountains are famous.

The demolition of these two dams has become an evolving scientific experiment, one that entails the restoration of an entire watershed, from salmon to alders to otters. The two dams had starved the lower reaches of the watershed of sediment, and the lakes that formed behind them were filled with unnaturally warm water. Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell also elevated water temperatures downstream, and marine nutrients failed to cycle into the ecosystem, affecting species throughout the food chain, from black bear, eagles, and osprey at the top, to frogs and flies.

The dams caused the near-extinction of native strains of samon including chinook, pink, and chum. Given their position at the center of this ecosystem, even a modest return of these migratory fish is crucial to restoring the Elwha watershed. The other major challenge facing the National Park Service is the management of tens of millions of cubic yards of sediment that have built up behind the dams.

Politically, what is happening on the Elwha may alter the landscape for large-scale dam removals in the United States as debates continue over the Pacific Northwest’s heavily-dammed Columbia River basin and Oregon’s Klamath. By 2020, 70 percent of the 84,000 dams in the U.S. will be more than 50 years old; many will require repair, removal, or replacement. Roughly 4,400 are at risk of failure, and the Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates it will cost $21 billion to repair them. In the past
Already, visible changes along the Elwha are 'jaw dropping,' says one scientist.
two decades alone, more than 500 dams in the U.S. — most of them small — have been demolished.

The Elwha is among the most ambitious ecological restoration projects in U.S. history, second only to efforts to re-engineer water flows in the Florida Everglades. Already, visible changes along the Elwha are “jaw dropping,” says Anne Shaffer, director of the Coastal Watershed Institute. A couple of thousand salmon have spawned in the river, and trees and grasses are recolonizing new terraces formed by the drawdown of Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell.

“This is the first time a system is being put back together,” says Ian Miller, coastal hazards specialist for Washington Sea Grant, a research and conservation organization.

Federal scientists knew that dealing with vast amounts of sediment built up behind the two dams would be their greatest challenge, but even they underestimated the scope of the problem. Demolitian experts made short work of the Elwha Dam. Glines Canyon, built in 1927, has been a slower,

Click to Enlarge
Elwha River watershed

Elwha River Restoration Project/NPS
The Elwha Dam was located five river miles from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, in Olympic National Park.
staged process as workers whittle notches, a few feet at a time, to control the release of a vast delta of clay, silt, sand, gravel, and cobblestones.

That sediment release far exceeds any in history. In 2010, hydrologists predicted that 24 million cubic yards had been trapped behind the dams. Last year, the estimate jumped to 34 million, enough to fill a football field five miles high. As sediment increased, so did the Elwha project’s costs, from $182 million in 2004 to more than $325 million today. About half of the sediments may remain in place, but the last 50 feet of Glines Canyon Dam has been holding back the biggest slug of all, 28 million cubic yards.

Demolition, regularly halted during “salmon windows” to give fish a chance to spawn without being smothered by sediment, has also been delayed. Last year, in a development that alarmed residents of Port Angeles, sediment began clogging the new $163 million water quality facilities built in town, which take drinking water from the river’s surface and a nearby well. Those facilities are the largest line item in the Elwha restoration budget, and removal was on hold for a year as a Park Service contractor completed $3.8 million in repairs. Work resumed this month, to be finished next year.

As planned, sediment is meant to move downriver in pulses as notches are removed. “We’re trying to make the river do the work,” says Tom Hepler, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expert on the Elwha removals. The Elwha has obliged, thrilling biologists by filling in pools and forming new gravel bars.
Before the dams were built, the Elwha was home to all five species of Pacific salmon.
That’s essential to spawning salmon who need cold water flowing through their redds, the hollows where they lay their eggs, moderating temperatures and providing oxygen.

Along the Elwha, 700 acres of forest are being recreated, drawing from 400 native species, everything from Douglas fir to grasses and groundcovers, such as Oregon grape. By next year, crews will have planted more than 100,000 of 400,000 seedlings. In one stretch above former Lake Mills, new growth coats the sides with green fuzz, but the lake bed still has the raw look of a mining pit. Joshua Chenoweth, who heads the Elwha replanting, has been pleased so far. But he’s cautious about long-term prospects for plants in the drying, nutrient-poor sediment, noting, “It is a bit early to say.”

The Elwha is also the world’s largest salmon restoration project, but one influenced by political as well as scientific considerations. State and federal agencies are juggling the long-frustrated hopes and high expectations of diverse parties. Among them are the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which has legal rights to Elwha salmon and whose reservation lies at the river’s mouth; sport fishermen; the city of Port Angeles; and the paper mill once served by the dams.

Before the dams were built, the Elwha was one of the Northwest’s great natural resources, hosting steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, coho, chum, pink, and the legendary Elwha chinook, which commonly reached 100 pounds. Ten salmon runs — each genetically adapted

The Glines Canyon Dam was breached in four places during October 3-6, 2011.
to a specific seasonal migration — meant that the Elwha was full of migrating fish year-round, some 400,000 annually.

But the Elwha dam put a stop to that. Despite official warnings, the builder violated an 1890 law requiring fish ladders on dams, substituting a hatchery instead. Other dam builders followed suit, blocking salmon runs throughout the Northwest. That end-run determined state policies for decades, giving rise to a hatchery-dependent fishery during the hydroelectric boom of the 1920s to 1960s. For years, fish appeared in declining numbers at the base of the Elwha dam. By the 1990s, native sockeye were extinct, spring chinook and chum nearly so. Pink salmon were endangered, and summer steelhead scarce.

These declines, along with a 1910 prohibition against fishing, deprived the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of a key food source and cultural touchstone. After their fishing rights were restored in the 1970s, the tribe objected to licensing the dams, citing their impact on the salmon fishery and a poor safety report predicting the Elwha dam might fail during high flood conditions. Built before federal regulation, it had never been licensed; Glines Canyon was overdue for relicensing. By this point, the dams served a single Port Angeles pulp mill.

The tribe’s fight for dam removal was joined by conservation groups, and in 1992, after a bruising political battle, Congress passed the Elwha restoration act. It empowered the Interior Department to buy the dams for $29.5 million and — if restoration of endangered salmon required it — tear them out.



Standing on a bridge just below Glines Canyon this summer, park visitors leaned out, calling excitedly when they saw salmon wavering through the water for the first time in a century. Conservationists and fishermen, however, have reacted with dismay to the federal fish restoration plan.

In 2008, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) team released a plan designed to help Elwha salmon survive the sediment and recolonize the river over 20 to 30 years, a time-frame acceptable to the tribe. To meet the schedule, the plan relied primarily on hatcheries, calling for a new $16 million hatchery to be built for the tribe near the river’s
The Elwha will be 'the gold standard against which any other salmon restoration will be measured,' says one expert.
mouth, while the tribe agreed to a five-year moratorium on Elwha fishing.

Hatchery fish, however, have become increasingly controversial as they dominate fisheries. They are tied to diseases affecting wild populations, and studies show that wild fish possess greater fitness and superior genetic traits. In 2012, conservation groups sued the tribe and federal agencies, asserting that the plan’s reliance on hatcheries threatened wild fish and violated the Endangered Species Act.

As the dispute works its way through the courts, tribal and NOAA biologists continue to capture and tag fish that reach the tribe’s hatchery and Washington state’s rearing channel nearby, transporting them from sediment-laden lower channels to unspoiled habitat above the former Elwha dam. Last year, 600 adult coho were released in clear tributaries; half of them spawned. In 2012, 2,200 chinook, including 500 wild fish, fought their way up the Elwha. This year numbers appear similar.

Meanwhile, dramatic changes are taking place at the river’s mouth. Sediment, sand, and woody debris have begun restoring the beach east of the mouth, once reduced to a narrow strip of cobblestones. This may correct severe coastal erosion, according to scientists who are using “smart rocks” — radio-tagged pebbles — to track their transport down the river. The hope is that once-rich shellfish beds may return.

“The Elwha is a very important system to watch,” says Gordon Grant, a hydrologist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon. “It tells us what to expect from a massive societal investment in river restoration.” He predicts that the Elwha, so much of it pristine, “will be the gold standard against which any other salmon restoration will be measured.”


The breaching of the Elwha Dam from mid-September to October 6, 2011.


POSTED ON 14 Oct 2013 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Policy & Politics Water Asia North America 

COMMENTS


Nice story about dam removal and restoring the salmon to the Elwha Basin in WA. However, we needed to write to correct an egregious error in your article, which states "The Elwha is the world's largest salmon restoration project." That is simply untrue. The NW Power & Conservation Council's Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program is the largest F&WL restoration program in the world. From 1978 to 2012, we've directly spent over $2.8 billion on F&WL restoration projects in Columbia Basin. We spent $249 million in 2012 alone. If you include the costs of foregone hydro revenues, the total costs jump to $13B. Here's a link to our annual report to the 4 NW Governors: http://www.nwcouncil.org/media/6867139/2013-04.pdf
Posted by Jim Ruff on 16 Oct 2013


Very interesting story and a hopeful one for salmon restoration. As numerous authors have alluded to over the years, the key to restoration is improving the ability of salmon to partake in their traditional life cycle. In large measure this means the removal of concrete. The Elwha is the most ambitious dam removal project to date and one that holds great promise. The claim made by Mr. Ruff that the NW Power & Conservation Council's Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program boasts the “largest restoration program in the world” leaves much to be desired. The report Mr. Ruff references provides ample figures, tables and pie charts about costs and foregone revenue, but no useful information about fish or about tangible restoration of wild salmon runs. It’s one thing to claim “largest,” but completely another to show how all those figures add up to restoration. If the Council has valid data about how its costs are in fact causing an increase in wild salmon runs, let’s see the information and sources so we might be rightly impressed by the costs and foregone revenue of the Council. The Elwha project stands as a potentially shining example of a viable restoration effort. Perhaps most importantly, the possible success of the Elwha effort will make abundantly clear the primary mechanism necessary for real salmon restoration: removal of concrete.
Posted by Kyle Gardner on 24 Oct 2013


Will be good to find out how wild vs. fisheries' salmon respond to the restored habitats. This could be one of the most important outcomes for future restoration projects.
Posted by Kathryn Papp on 19 Jan 2014


Great story. I have loved it from beginning to end. However, all throughout, I sensed that all human efforts are too late. Maybe we have escaped doomsday, and most will come back for us and our generations to come. Hopefully, the new generations will not screw up royally like their fathers and grandfathers.

Thank you very much for the great article.
Posted by Sandro Spano on 03 Apr 2015


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


caroline fraserABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Fraser has written widely about animal rights, natural history, and the environment, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker and Outside magazine, among others. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, she wrote about a faltering effort to save Mexican wolves in the U.S and about the damage to trees caused by the prolonged drought in the U.S. Southwest.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Water in the Bank: One Solution
For Drought-Stricken California

A potential answer to California’s severe water shortages is groundwater banking, which involves creating incentives for municipalities, farmers, and other water users to percolate water down into sub-surface aquifers for later use.
READ MORE

For Buddhist Leader, Religion
And the Environment Are One

As a Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Karmapa is promoting green practices in monasteries in the Himalayan region. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about how the world needs both religion and science in tackling the “environmental emergency” of climate change.
READ MORE

With Too Much of a Good Thing,
Europe Tackles Excess Nitrogen

In Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries, European governments are beginning to push farmers, industry, and municipalities to cut back on fertilizers and other sources of nitrogen that are causing serious environmental harm.
READ MORE

As Himalayan Glaciers Melt,
Two Towns Face the Fallout

For two towns in northern India, melting glaciers have had very different impacts — one town has benefited from flowing streams and bountiful harvests; but the other has seen its water supplies dry up and now is being forced to relocate.
READ MORE

Designing Wetlands to Remove
Drugs and Chemical Pollutants

Drinking water supplies around the world often contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and synthetic compounds that may be harmful to human health. One solution being tried in the U.S. and Europe is to construct man-made wetlands that naturally degrade these contaminants.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Surge in Renewables Remakes
California’s Energy Landscape

by cheryl katz
Thanks to favorable geography, innovative government policies, and businesses that see the benefits of clean energy investments, California is closing in on its goal of generating a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
READ MORE

As Andes Warm, Deciphering
The Future for Tropical Birds

by daniel grossman
Scientists have theorized that tropical birds in mountainous regions will move uphill as the climate warms. But new research in the Peruvian Andes suggests that the birds will stay put and face a new threat — predator snakes that will climb into their territory to escape the heat.
READ MORE

Nicaragua Canal: A Giant Project
With Huge Environmental Costs

Work has already begun on a $50 billion inter-ocean canal in Nicaragua that would cut through nature reserves and bring massive dredging and major ship traffic to Central America’s largest lake. Scientists and conservationists are warning that the project is an environmental disaster in the making.
READ MORE

Can the North Sea Wind Boom
And Seabird Colonies Coexist?

by fred pearce
Offshore wind farms have been proliferating in the North Sea, with more huge projects planned. But conservationists are concerned this clean energy source could threaten seabird colonies that now thrive in the sea’s shallow waters.
READ MORE

On the Internet, Illegal Trade
In Endangered Wildlife Thrives

by ted williams
On eBay and elsewhere on the Internet, illegal wildlife and wildlife parts — from elephant ivory to tiger skins to monkey and crocodile skulls — are being sold. Bringing an end to this illicit activity is proving to be a daunting challenge.
READ MORE

With Too Much of a Good Thing,
Europe Tackles Excess Nitrogen

by christian schwagerl
In Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries, European governments are beginning to push farmers, industry, and municipalities to cut back on fertilizers and other sources of nitrogen that are causing serious environmental harm.
READ MORE

How Conservative Texas Took
The Lead in U.S. Wind Power

by roger real drouin
Innovative government policies have helped propel Texas into the forefront of wind energy generation in the U.S. But the main impetus for the Lone Star State’s flourishing wind sector is the revenue it has generated for landowners and local communities.
READ MORE

Frustrated Tar Sands Industry
Looks for Arctic Export Route

by ed struzik
With the Keystone XL and other pipeline projects running into stiff opposition, Alberta’s tar sands industry is facing growing pressure to find ways to get its oil to market. One option under consideration would be to ship the oil via an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean.
READ MORE

In the Sagebrush Marketplace,
A New Way to Protect Species

by joshua zaffos
In the American West, where sage grouse populations have plummeted, conservationists, ranchers, and oil and gas companies are taking part in an experiment in which private landowners are paid to protect and restore critical habitat for the beleaguered bird.
READ MORE

As Himalayan Glaciers Melt,
Two Towns Face the Fallout

by daniel grossman
For two towns in northern India, melting glaciers have had very different impacts — one town has benefited from flowing streams and bountiful harvests; but the other has seen its water supplies dry up and now is being forced to relocate.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints


Yale Environment 360 Video Contest 2015
Accepting entries through June 15, 2015.

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Badru's Story
Badru’s Story, winner of the Yale Environment 360 Video Contest, documents the work of African researchers monitoring wildlife in Uganda's remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale