The Elwha River that flows out of the Olympic Mountains into the Salish Sea was once a celebrated salmon fishing ground. About a hundred years ago, two dams were built on the river. The dams generated electricity to power the mills of Port Angeles, but they decimated the salmon runs. Now, the dams are about to be taken down and the river restored.
This week Liam goes to Olympic National Park where he talks with Park spokesperson and longtime Port Angeles resident Barb Maynes about what’s likely the largest restoration project ever undertaken in the Pacific Northwest.
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Liam Moriarty: We’re up at the Glines Canyon Dam, which is the taller of the two dams on the Elwha River and the one that’s further upstream.
Barb Maynes: We’re looking out across Lake Mills which is the reservoir behind Glines Canyon Dam, looking up into, I think. one of the most scenic views of the Elwha Valley. You really get a sense, I think, from here, of how huge this watershed is, and the scope from the high snow-capped peaks all the way down to the river’s mouth where we were a little while ago.
Liam: I want to ask about that actually because right there, I guess on the eastern side of where the river comes out, is where the lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has their reservation. Like most of the tribes in the Salish Sea area, shellfish were a big part of that; salmon and shellfish were two of their big things.
Putting the dam in did serious damage to both of those. We’re going to see shellfish back down at the mouth of the river again once this all settles out?
Barb: That’s one of the exciting things about this project; that it’s truly a restoration from headwaters all the way out to the sea. Not only — we’ll see salmon all the way up — way, way upstream in the Elwha, at higher elevations — and we’ll see the beaches and the shellfish and the salmon coming back to the beaches along the Strait too. All of that is of utmost importance to the tribe. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s more eager than the tribe to see the dams come out, to see the fish come back, to have access to their cultural sites again.
Liam: A big issue with this is that you’ve got 100 years worth of silt and sediment built up behind that dam. How does that get managed?
Barb: Basically by the river itself. As the river enters the upstream end of Lake Mills, that’s when the river is carrying its load of silt and sediment. When it gets to the still waters of the reservoir, the silt and sediment settle out on the bottom. There’s a big delta there now. Basically what will happen as the water in the reservoir lowers, as we start notching down the dam, the river will just erode that delta away.
Liam: What about the electricity from the dams? Are we going to miss that? I mean, I’m sure somebody figured that, but what’s the calculation there?
Barb: All the electricity from these dams now goes into the regional Bonneville (Power Administration) grid. And the BPA has told us that, no, it won’t be missed. It’s a small amount, about 19 megawatts a year. And that will simply be absorbed. The loss of this 19 megawatts will just be absorbed by other sources throughout the region.
Liam: Restoring an ecosystem like this; there’s a lot of moving parts in something like this. What has to be done in order to rehabilitate the habitat in a way that the salmon will come back and be happy?
Barb: A part of what makes this project so special, is that really, the only thing that’s wrong with this ecosystem, that’s wrong with this watershed, is that the dams are here. We’re in Olympic National Park. It’s been protected. It’s pristine. This area here, we don’t have impacts from development, from any kind of harvest, any kind of agriculture, and so the habitat is here. All we have to do is let the salmon get to it.
Liam: Can we just basically take the dams out and let the system find its own equilibrium; is it that simple?
Barb: You know, it pretty much is. It pretty much is. Take the dams out, and obviously there are years worth of planning, there are years worth of engineering and research that have gone into designing the best possible techniques for removing the dams, for managing the sediment, but it really boils down to take the dams out, let the salmon come back to their habitat, and that’s it. It’s tremendously exciting.
Liam: You talk about how the river connects things. That’s an interesting observation. That must be a pretty cool thing to anticipate happening.
Barb: It is really cool. I was thinking the other day it kind of feels like the river’s just been holding its breath for a long time. If you think about the salmon returning, the watershed, the ecosystem here, inhales deeply. The salmon come back in, it takes a deep breath in, the eggs are laid, the young hatch out, and they head back to sea. The sediment and the silt heads out to sea, and the river breathes out. The river’s been holding its breath for 100 years, and it’s about to start breathing again.
Liam: Barb, thank you for showing me your river.
Barb: Thanks for coming.
- The National Park Service’s Elwha Dam Removal homepage
- Interactive Earth animation of the Elwha Dam removal process
- Interactive Earth animation of Glines Canyon Dam removal process
- Bureau of Reclamation Elwha/Glines Canyon Dam info page
- Lower Elwha Klallam tribe