Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Jennifer Potter and Tom Phillips some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

Elwha dams: Will bringing down NW dams really help salmon?

A new SIFF show argues for tearing down more river-blocking monstrosities. But bigger questions may loom over the future of salmon.

From the remaining crest of the almost-demolished Glines Canyon dam you can look out past a curving row of 1920s concrete light standards to the Elwha River, snaking through cliffs of gray sediment that once lay at the bottom of Lake Mills. One could call this scene a "moonscape," but it's framed by second-growth forest above the old lake shore, swallows swoop across the remaining dam face and perch on low metal railings, and the river leads the eye south to snowcapped Olympic Mountain peaks.

The Elwha, which drains 20 percent of what is now Olympic National Park, flows north into the Strait of Juan de Fuca just west of Port Angeles. At least six species of salmon and trout once spawned in its watershed. Runs of pink salmon reached 100,000 fish. Individual chinook reached 100 pounds. Members of the Klallam tribe harvested the fish for centuries.

Lake Mills was formed by the dam in 1927. It was drawn down in 2010 and 2011, before demolition of the much lower and slightly older Elwha dam began downriver. Lake Aldwell, created by the lower dam, was drawn down, too. Sediment — held up behind the two dams since the presidencies of William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge — gushed downstream.

From a bridge just below the Glines Canyon dam, you can see sediment and small cobble and big logs along the river banks where a few years ago, when logs and all the particles were trapped behind the dams, only large stones lay. The water is still gray with sediment. It will remain gray for the next couple of years, until the river has washed down as much of the old lake bed as it is likely to take. The murky water isn't ideal for fish, but the sediment load has passed the point at which people worry about the salmon. Last fall, chinook spawned in that rushing water that fills the narrow canyon right below Glines Canyon Dam.

By now, the dam is almost entirely gone, except for the intact ends, which don't block the channel and from which you can look down 200 feet into the abyss where the center once stood. They will be retained as viewing platforms. When a crane scoops the last concrete from the river this September, spawning salmon will be able to make their way all the way up the river in the protected habitat of Olymmpic National Park.

The Elwha River has become internationally known as the site of the largest river restoration project ever. It stars in the new feature-length documentary DamNation, which will show on May 18 and two later dates at the Seattle International Film Festival. The film, sponsored partly by the outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, places Elwha restoration in the context of a growing movement to remove old American dams.

When Congress first voted to take out the Elwha dams back in 1992, dam removal seemed a radical idea. By now, Patagonia founder and the film's executive producer Yves Chouinard wrote recently in The New York Times, "The message has been slowly spreading around the country. More and more communities and states have reclaimed rivers lost to jackhammers and concrete."

Planned demolition — by explosives, giant jackhammers, or both — is not at all the fate we have traditionally imagined for dams. In his poem, "Summer Holiday," Robinson Jeffers envisioned a future in which cities would be reduced to "stains of rust on mounds of plaster" but one would still see "a concrete dam far off in the mountain."

Not in the Olympic Mountains, it turns out. Now, the Elwha figures in a new kind of domino theory. The phrase stems from the idea used to justify the American intervention in Vietnam, which held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, the other countries could fall in automatic succession just like a row of dominos toppling each other. That turned out to be the wrong way to think about Southeast Asian politics, but maybe it's the right way to think about American dams. One fall of an old concrete power dam may not inevitably lead to the next, but it certainly makes the next look plausible, setting the stage for a decision that 20 years ago would never have been made. As University of Washington geologist David Montgomery says in the film, "radical ideas [have become] conventional."


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Fri, May 16, 8:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Will bringing down the dams help salmon? Maybe. But it won't be enough to save them. Researchers at Oregon State University have determined the NUMBER ONE THREAT to PNW salmon and their habitats is increased immigration into the region, the vast majority of which comes from outside the U.S. and Canada. In fact, they say, if we do not check immigration NOTHING ELSE WE DO will "save" our wild salmon. If we are really interested in saving salmon, it isn't the dams we need to take down, it is the red carpet we need to roll up.

BlueLight

Posted Fri, May 16, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, and this is true because resource depletion, whether clear water, air, ecosystems, is correlative with population growth, and illegal and legal immigration already constitute about 90 percent of our post-1970 population growth. And Obama is now moving as zealously as possible to considerably increase both kinds of immigration.

Posted Fri, May 16, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Mind posting a link to the OSU study?

Treker

Posted Fri, May 16, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

http://oregonstate.edu/dept/fw/lackey/Salmon2100.htm

BlueLight

Posted Fri, May 16, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks!

........, if society wishes to do anything meaningful about moving wild salmon off their current, long-term downward trajectory, then something must be done about unrelenting human population growth in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. It is not simply the number of people that causes problems for wild salmon, but it is also their individual and collective ecological footprint and the fact that humans and salmon tend to use the lower elevations of a watershed. Protected public lands (e.g., national parks, wilderness areas, and national forests) are often at higher elevation and streams in these locations usually provide little habitat for wild salmon.

What amount of population growth should be expected? The latest demographic forecasts show a slowing of the world population (currently 7.2 billion) growth rate through this century with a leveling off toward 2100 (United Nations 2013). Yes, a leveling off is predicted, but at 10.9 billion people. Especially for regions like the Pacific Northwest and the U.S. generally, there is a different story. It is largely one of past, current, and future immigration. Currently, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia are home to 15 million humans. In the absence of policy changes and assuming a range of likely human reproductive rates and migration to the Pacific Northwest from elsewhere in Canada and the United States, by 2100 this region’s human population will not be its present 15 million, but rather will be somewhere between 50 and 100 million, a potential quadrupling or more of the region’s population by the end of this century.

Treker

Posted Fri, May 16, 2:51 p.m. Inappropriate

"something must be done about unrelenting human population growth in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho"-- The problem is global as well as regional.
http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001345
http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153031/
etc.

The best known way to resolve the inequities that drive population growth is to eliminate misogyny, educate everyone (especially women), eliminate economic injustice, etc. The current political economic paradigm (global capitalism) is not likely to accomplish these goals. It's a serious problem: http://www.sesync.org/sites/default/files/resources/motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf

louploup

Posted Fri, May 16, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

And is taking down power-providing dams a smart thing to do as energy resources continue being depleted, and take into account the fact that if the very expensive and polluting fracking industry hasn't yet peaked, it is close to doing so. (Just look at the number of drill sites already required to maintain present production.)

Picture our society with its density and demands without sufficient energy sources.

Posted Fri, May 16, 2:58 p.m. Inappropriate

We are going to have insufficient energy sources to continue current consumption patterns even if we don't tear down another dam or dam up every remaining river on earth. You can't solve a demand side problem with supply side solutions.

louploup

Posted Sun, May 18, 12:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Always good to see the phony "progressives" opposing the cleanest reliable power source we've got. Fits right in with the rest of their blatant hypocrisy.

NotFan

Posted Sun, May 18, 3:13 p.m. Inappropriate

I oppose dams that don't make sense economically or ecologically. Elwha and Glines didn't make sense for either. I am not opposed to Seattle City Light's Skagit Project or most of the Columbia hydropower system.

While hydro is the single best source of electricity, my point here is there is not enough hydropower capacity to replace the fossil fuels that currently provides most of our energy. IOW, the problem is our rate of energy consumption (demand side) and fossil fuels cannot be replaced by any of the current or near term alternative energy sources (supply side). Kieth's comment below says basically the same thing.

After you've looked up the details (I thought you claimed to know energy issues?), spew again with specifics on how I am being a hypocrite. Beyond that, you should chew on your own bile a while before posting; everyone who reads these threads would appreciate it.

louploup

Posted Wed, May 21, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Always good to see that "conservatives" conserve nothing, except the same old litneys rather than thinking of how to solve the problems of growth and life itself.

Water power from dams is only "clean" if you don't count the energy to build the dam and the habitat it destroys.

GaryP

Posted Fri, May 16, noon Inappropriate

The Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were illegally built to begin with, were functionally obsolete, and had been producing zero energy yields prior to being torn down. Good riddance, and welcome home wild fish of the Elwha.

What is a shame is that some folks thought it would be a good idea to build a multi-million dollar fish hatchery on a river that is the best wild-fish recovery experiment in US history...

CGBallard

Posted Fri, May 16, 8:14 p.m. Inappropriate

The Elwa was the low fruit on the tree. There are a few more dams in the low laying fruit vein, but once those are gone, then what?

There's no such thing as free energy. Replacing power dams isn't going to be easy. Each alternative energy source has it's environmental detriments and right now the dam busters haven't been willing to address the enormity of the problem. You'd think that if they really really love salmon, they'd come to the table with a completed plan that covers the spectrum of the situation, provides solutions that are achievable, and displays the benefits of the plan. The problem is they are focused solely on salmon and if that's the only major benefit offered, it won't fly.

Djinn

Posted Sun, May 18, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Accurate and well put. Removing dams, like other environmental crusades aims at reducing supply as if the way to change our high consumption life style is to remove the availability of things like electric power, gasoline, jet fuel, etc. Reducing the supply does increase costs and will eventually have the desired result. But these quests seem to ignore the consumption side of the equation; don't we want to change people's lifestyle? where is the environmentalist program that exhorts people to use less electricity, gasoline, diesel fuel and natural gas? it's as if the environmentalist game plan is to conceal or ignore the fact that our individual lives have to change; it's not just the producers.

kieth

Posted Sat, May 17, 12:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Good discussion. Thanks all.

afreeman

Posted Mon, May 19, 8:34 a.m. Inappropriate

The Elwha was indeed low hanging fruit - as was smaller PGE run Marmot and Little Sandy dams in Oregon. They didn't produce much power and when you look at the range of environmental effects it was reasonable to remove them. The thinking on dams has evolved. 30 years ago no one would have thought it possible to take down the Elwha outside of a few dedicated activists and Tribe members.

But the easy ones have been removed. There is an "agreement" to take down the PacifiCorps Klamath River dams but it's so fraught with trigger steps, including CA passing a huge multi-million dollar bond issue and Interior stepping up with money (read Congress) that it just doesn't seem possible.

The lower Snake River dams seem ripe as their relative contribution to power is low and they have some very strong effects on salmonid production. But - the issue is a hornet's nest of politics because, unlike the Elwha and Sandy River dams, these are not isolated features but part of a system that allows Lewiston, ID to be a port city (go figure!).

With a clear a agenda - but this film is interesting and now at SIFF: http://damnationfilm.com/

Treker

Posted Mon, May 19, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate


"where is the environmentalist program that exhorts people to use less electricity, gasoline, diesel fuel and natural gas? it's as if the environmentalist game plan is to conceal or ignore the fact that our individual lives have to change; it's not just the producers."

The environmentalist program to use less energy has been around for over 3 decades it is called energy efficiency. Utilities in the NW have been very successful at carrying out programs to save energy and studies have shown that there is much more to be cost effectively saved.

But if you do the math in terms of need for energy due to population and the need to switch away from fossil fuels, I think it is impossible to conclude that energy efficiency and renewable energy alone will do the job. We all have to continue to find ways to live productive, enjoyable lives in ways that use less energy, use fewer resources, and involve less travel.

Posted Mon, May 19, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

It is true that some parts of the environmental community have been advocating for "ways to live productive, enjoyable lives in ways that use less energy, use fewer resources, and involve less travel."

Unfortunately, it is also true that organizationally the environmental community has become significantly more conservative over the past few decades. Larger staffs require a consistent and growing revenue stream. Success at lobbying leads to close relationships with legislators and a tendency to avoid confrontational strategies like litigation. These trends do not promote vigorous grassroots advocacy, which seems to need to be reinvented every generation.

There is a fairly extensive literature on the problem. See http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_14010.cfm ("How the Big Environmental Groups Have Failed the Grassroots")
http://grist.org/article/time-for-environmental-funders-to-stop-neglecting-the-grassroots/ (Read the comments!)
http://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/clevmembks/17/ (Especially Chapter 9)

And even right here: http://crosscut.com/2013/04/30/politics-government/114196/seattles-next-mayor-will-be-mcginn-like/ ("In Seattle, however, the environmental groups have mostly joined the regime consensus, which responds by granting favors and funding and stakeholder participation.")

louploup

Posted Mon, May 19, 12:55 p.m. Inappropriate

"The environmentalist program to use less energy has been around for over 3 decades it is called energy efficiency."

Keeping the above in mind, I think you should read the following, because it seems that the if this the environmentalist program, it won't work. Ever.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox

Djinn

Posted Mon, May 19, 1:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Jevons paradox is related to the problem of linkage of economic activity to the use/consumption of energy. Efficiencies in one area simply appear as higher expenditures of energy in another. The link will be broken due to biophysical limits if we don't manage to do it voluntarily. Serious problem for sure.

(One paper I found even claims to have calculated the quantity of energy consumption need to develop a unit of economic value: Garrett 2011, DOI 10.1007/s10584-009-9717-9: "At civilization’s core there is a single constant factor, λ = 9.7 ± 0.3 mW per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar, that ties the global economy to simple physical principles.")

louploup

Posted Mon, May 19, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

There should be condom dispensaries on every corner of every over-crowded city around the globe, but Wall St. tycoons and oil barons, in harmony with traditional religious leaders, have stymied global consciousness of excessive human populations and prevented widespread availability of birth control. More humans means more political power, more consumers and cheaper labor, so big business prevails.

Long ago there should have been global consciousness of the horrific devastation resulting from burning unfathomable volumes of fossil fuels, but again the oil barons and tycoons made sure we heard only about the glorious standard of living we'd have, ignoring the rising heat, while religious authorities taught us to rely on God to take care of us.

We should have stopped igniting wars many years ago, but wars are good for business, promote fossil fuel consumption and promote population growth, so again big business wins and wars are now constant.

We should be planning on sharply reducing our carbon intensive travel patterns and life-styles, providing quality science-based education world-wide, and learning to live harmoniously with each other and with nature on our small planet, but who will bring any of these things up at any level of government?

Howgar

Posted Wed, May 21, 4:41 p.m. Inappropriate

These dams were useless as electrical production devices. All this hand wringing over the future an lack of energy... what a load of fossil fuel industry cr*p. There is more than enough in Thorium which BTW is in coal, when combined with solar and wind to meet our energy needs and growth for centuries.

And yes we should eliminate ocean fishing for salmon. If you want them, you can only catch them within 1/2 mile of a river. That should make it obvious which fish belong in which river.

GaryP

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »