Restoration of the Elwha River Fisheries and Ecosystem


Restoration of the Elwha River Fisheries and Ecosystem

Restoration of the Elwha River Fisheries and Ecosystem

Background and Prospects for Recovery


2/11/2000 — — A Brief History In 1910, the free-flowing, fisheries-rich, 45-mile-long Elwha River, located in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, was blocked by the construction of the Elwha Dam creating the Lake Aldwell reservoir. Construction of Elwha Dam went forward despite a lack of permits and in violation of Washington state law. Sixteen years later in 1926, and 8.5 miles upstream from the Elwha Dam, the Glines Canyon Dam was constructed creating the Lake Mills reservoir. By 1930, the dams supplied a portion of the power needs for domestic, commercial and industrial uses including the pulp and paper mills in Port Angeles, owned and operated by Fort James, Inc. A proposed transfer of ownership of the dams between Fort James and Daishowa America Corp. – along with the subsequent federal relicensing process – led to an opportunity in 1988 for local stakeholders to challenge future operations of the dams. In 1988, Trout Unlimited (TU) attempted to gain “intervenor” status in the federal and legal proceedings that guided the federal hydropower (FERC) relicensing process and gained that status in 1989. TU played a strong role in the passing of the 1992 Elwha Act in which the U.S. Park Service (purveyors of Olympic National Park) was directed to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on proposed dam removal and to provide $29.5 million in compensation for the dams’ current owners (the cost of a 40-year FERC license). In 1995 Trout Unlimited helped to establish the Port Angeles-based Elwha Citizen’s Advisory Committee which produced a report establishing strong scientific and compelling economic and ecological reasons to recommend dam removal.

The Impact of the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams Despite their boost to early development along the peninsula, the dams blocked the migration path for a diverse and magnificent assemblage of salmon and trout (including the summer/fall chinook salmon, coho salmon, winter steelhead, summer steelhead, pink salmon, chum salmon, sockeye salmon, and searun cutthroat) migrating to and from the ocean to mature and spawn in their birth river, the Elwha. In addition, downstream movement of gravel sought by trout and salmon for spawning was held back by the dams, eventually leading to the loss of critical salmon and trout habitat. The Park Service’s 1995 EIS concluded that “On the Elwha River, the dams have completely blocked upstream passage to 93% of the salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat.” Additionally, 83 percent of the pristine habitat of the Elwha River watershed lies within Olympic National Park.

As a result of the dams’ construction, native anadromous salmon and trout cannot and do not reach beyond the Elwha dam or the first 4.9 miles of the Elwha River. Although hatchery fish are stocked in the river in an attempt to make up for the loss of native returns, the hatchery fish inevitably return to “crowded, poor quality stream conditions to spawn, where they are subject to physiological stress, disease, high water temperatures, and inadequate spawning and rearing habitat.”

Tribal Treaties Hang in the Balance An important resource and heritage was sacrificed with the construction of the Glines and Elwha Dams. Particularly the Lower Elwha S’Klallam Indian Reservation, occupying 574 acres of land at the mouth of the river – who maintain a strong spiritual linkage to the River and its fish – has been affected. Four Indian tribes: the Lower Elwha S’Klallam, the Port Gamble S’Klallam, the Jamestown S’Kallam and the Makah hold treaty interests to the salmon and trout fisheries of the Elwha River area. These fish were relied upon for subsistence, religious and economic purposes for thousands of years prior to the dams’ construction. Tribal efforts to maintain a salmon hatchery on the Elwha River produce a catch that is only a fraction of the total produced by the river before the dams.

The River The Elwha’s river channel and flow patterns also suffer at the hands of the dams. Where the river between the dams once ran a wild, naturally meandering channel with healthy sand, gravel and cobble bars that prevented the over growth of vegetation. The dams’ reservoirs have trapped sand and gravel movement straightening out the river’s natural curves and allowing vegetation to occupy what were once prime spawning beds. Water temperatures have risen significantly since the dams were built due to the still water of the reservoirs being warmed by the sun, storing heat, which is later released downstream. Salmon and trout require consistently cool flows to survive.

Perhaps most critical to surviving salmon is the estuary at the mouth of the river which is used by all juvenile native anadromous fish during their transition form fresh water to salt water. Studies have documented a decrease in Elwha’s estuary by one-half mile since the dams were built.

Federal Relicensing Process Unearths an Opportunity In 1973, the James River Corporation’s (the then owner of the two dams) application to license the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was challenged by various tribal, environmental and fisheries interests. Trout Unlimited became actively engaged in the early 1980s, and has maintained an active role throughout the process, attaining intervenor status in 1989.

In 1992, as a result of the controversy surrounding the relicensing of the two dams, Congress enacted Public Law 102-495, the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, instructing the Secretary of Interior to study actions to restore the native anadromous fisheries and ecosystem in the Elwha River, which took precedence over the FERC licensing process. The Department of the Interior published for public and congressional review what has come to be known as the “Elwha Report” which determined that “removing the dams was both feasible and necessary to restore the fisheries and ecosystem and to uphold the federal trust responsibility for the affected Indian tribes.” (1995 Environmental Impact Statement, Department of the Interior).

Congressional Funding and Transfer of the Dams The Clinton Administration has requested $31 million in the next fiscal year (FY 2001) to assist with the removal of the Elwha River dams. In 1992 Congress authorized removal of the dams to help salmon recovery efforts. To date $51.5 million in federal money has been secured for the dams’ removal. The U.S. Parks Service has estimated it will cost $113 million for the removal of both the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams.

Will The Dams Be Removed? The Administration’s $31 million budget request, if appropriated, is key in the eventual removal of these dams. All of the stakeholders involved – agencies, tribes, conservation groups and private business – remain committed to removal. The transfer of ownership to the federal government, now complete, means dam removal is that much closer to a reality.

Prospects for Recovery with Dam Removal: Pre-dam accounts of Elwha’s steelhead and salmon runs are legendary: The river was said to have been home to 100-lb. chinook salmon. According to the Department of Interior, if both the Glines and Elwha dams are removed, the river’s once bountiful anadromous fish populations would return to normal, estimated as high as 390,000 fish in the 45-mile stretch of river. The same report concluded that neither the construction of fish ladders nor removal of just one of the dams presented a ‘good’ chance of full fish restoration in the absence of removing both of the dams.

Of significance is the quality of the watershed located in the Olympic National Park awaiting the trout and salmon’s return. This watershed offers the rare quality of maintaining its natural condition due to the protection of the Park and lack of surrounding development. Removal of the two dams would re-establish the ability for native salmon and trout to enter, spawn and exit the Elwha river to the ocean year round. In addition, 22 species of birds and mammals would be supplied with a source of food. Free-flowing waters would allow return the normal transfer of valuable sand and gravel for form high quality spawning and rearing habitat.

The Economics of Removing the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams: Early estimates of the jobs created as a result of the two dam removals range from 760 to 1,067 jobs in Clallam County, generating between $21-29 million in personal income. Clallam County is projected to enjoy between $40 -$55 million in business activity over the 10-year restoration period.

Following the completion of the restoration, 446 annual jobs and a payroll of $4.6 million would be generated in the Clallam County recreation and tourism sector, contributing an additional $296,000 per year to the local tax base (sales).

Early economic analysis of the benefits of breaching both dams suggested that business benefits associated with recreation and tourism, including sport fishing, would total $133 million over 100 years. The Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe would realize substantial improvements to their material and cultural circumstances. Commercial fishermen would realize $3.5 million per year of the net economic benefits or $30 million over the project life.

Significance of the Elwha agreement and subsequent removal The combination of Endangered Species Act listing of Puget Sound chinook and the recent agreement to resolve the stalemate between the U.S. and Canada in the Pacific Salmon Treaty offers the best opportunity yet to put fish back in the river. The tremendous cooperation that led to the landmark Elwha agreement gives all of those returning fish high-quality waters to travel to.

The Elwha agreement comes on the heels of Trout Unlimited’s joint release of the most comprehensive review to date of the history and benefits of dam removal in the United States. The report,Dam Removal Success Stories: restoring rivers through selective removal of dams that don’t make sense, [Editor: copies of this report may be found at or by calling Maggie Lockwood at (703) 284-9425] documents 25 case studies of successful dam removals across the country.

Across the nation communities have chosen to restore their home waters to healthy, free flowing river systems upon weighing the impacts of dams on their rivers and their quality of life. Once celebrated for their ability to bring power, irrigation and navigation to a region, many communities are now opting to restore rivers where the dams’ negative environmental, economic and recreational impacts have outweighed their benefits. Dam removal has become an increasingly attractive option in cases where the dams have outlived their intended purpose or where the economic and environmental damage done by dams outweighs the benefits of leaving them in place.

Date: 2/11/2000