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

The former Elwha Dam looms overhead as DamNation producer and underwater photographer Matt Stoecker prepares to film Chinook salmon trapped below the impassable wall of concrete in a scene from DamNation Credit: Travis Rummel

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."

"President Obama should learn from that example," Chouinard wrote. "Most urgently, he should turn his attention to the Snake River in eastern Washington, where four dams along its lower reaches provide marginal (and replaceable) electricity generation that is outweighed by the opportunities for the revival of endangered salmon populations, plus the jobs and communities a healthy salmon fishery would support. Those deadbeat dams should be taken down."

The fate of the Lower Snake dams — referred to in DamNation as "the most ill-conceived and environmentally destructive dams in America" — has been the crux of the long-running conflict over restoring threatened and endangered Snake River salmon populations and managing the entire federal Columbia River system of dams. Just as the Elwha's spawning streams are protected by Olympic National Park, the Idaho's mountain spawning areas for Snake River salmon are protected by federal wilderness. But the fish must run a gantlet of eight federal dams on their passage to and from the sea. Wild fish advocates have argued for years that the fish can't recover unless the dams are torn down. Defenders of the current hydro and barge transportation systems have always opposed the idea, which has never been featured in the federal government's biological opinions on its operation of the dam system. Wild fish advocates say the breaching of the dams should at least be on the table. So did the federal judge who rejected three of the biological opinions. But it's not.

The lower Snake dams generate a lot more power than the Elwha dams ever did, but their output is still relatively modest. (The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has calculated basically that if those four dams were breached, no one would notice.) But economic interests aren't as easily bought off — there is no one-for-one way to replace the lock system that enables Lewiston, Idaho to function as a deepwater port. Plus, the feds aren't handing out money as freely as they were not so many years ago. And, unlike the Elwha, the lower Snake dams have become a focus of the culture wars. At a "Save Our Dams" rally in the Tri Cities — a moment caught in DamNation — when U.S. Congressman chair Doc Hastings spoke of the people who advocated dam-breaching, he said that "we are literally dealing with the lunatic fringe of our society."

From a 21st century perspective, a lot of people think the original decision to dam the Elwha looks pretty loony, too. How did it happen? In the early 20th century, an entrepreneur named Thomas Aldwell conceived the dams. Starting in 1910, first the Elwha Dam and then the Glines Canyon Dam walled off the whole watershed upstream, destroying the historic salmon runs. From a current perspective, it's easy to wonder: What was he thinking? For that matter, what were the state and federal governments thinking when they let him do it?

The old Elwha Dam loomed overhead as "DamNation" producer and underwater photographer Matt Stoecker prepares to film Chinook salmon trapped below the impassable wall of concrete. Travis Rummel.

Aldwell was thinking money, of course. And so, presumably, was everyone else — although, of course, the people who profited from killing fish with dams weren't the same people who profited from killing them with nets or hooks, and no one profited from not killing them at all. Beyond that, put yourself back into the early 20th century. There was very little electricity but lots of salmon. What would you have done? It was a time of dam building. The Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, which was breached in 2011 — with a dynamite blast that started what was then the world's biggest dam removal project — went up at around the same time as the Elwha Dam. The Cushman Dam, which still blocks the North Fork Skokomish River, went on line the year before Glines Canyon. And the peninsula was going through a burst of industrialization.

As for the state and the feds: The national park didn't exist when either dam was built. The federal licensing process didn't exist when the first dam went up. State law did prohibit blocking a fish stream — laws had done so ever since the first legislative session of the Oregon Territory, which included all of modern Washington — but those laws weren't enforced. Besides, the hope — or at least pretense at the time — was that a hatchery built near the lower dam would replace all those salmon cut off from their spawning streams.

It didn't, of course. But not everyone had forgotten about the old fish runs or the way the river used to be. In the 1980s, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe started talking about tearing down the dams. "At first, I thought it was crazy," the late Russ Busch, who was the tribe's attorney at the time, once recalled. "It was going too far. Then, I remembered whenever they talked about [problems caused by the dams] at the tribe, the chairman or somebody would get exasperated and say, 'Maybe we ought to blow 'em up.' " Before long, the National Park Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department were saying basically the same thing. The Glines Canyon dam needed its federal license renewed and the Elwha Dam, which had never been licensed, needed a federal license, too. It became clear that providing fish passage around the dams would cost more than they were worth. Olympic National Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes recalls that when she first worked at the park, roughly 25 years ago, the Park Service's decision to intervene in the dam relicensing process and to advocate dam removal was a big deal; she loved it, but it came as a surprise.

A painted crack and message on Glines Canyon Dam foreshadowed its removal over two decades later. Elwha River, Olympic National Park in a scene from "DamNation." Mikal Jakubal.

In 1992, Congress voted to take out the dams if the Secretary of the Interior decided that dam removal was the best way to restore the Elwha's salmon and ecosystem. Moving from that vote to actual demolition took many years of political maneuvering plus a lavish expenditure of federal funds to buy off recalcitrant local interests, all of which Lynda Mapes describes in her fine 2013 book, "Elwha: A River Reborn." It was easy to replace the power generated by fish-killing dams on the Elwha with power from fish-killing dams on the Columbia. Once the federal dollars had been committed, and stimulus funds arrived to keep the project on track, the lower Elwha dam came down in late 2011. Fish quickly started moving back up into parts of the river that the lower dam had blocked for nearly a century.

A recent Burke Museum exhibit based on Mapes' book pointed out that the icons of the restoration effort were the 100-pound chinook salmon that once swam up to the headwaters. (A traveling version of the exhibit will make its first stop in Bellingham this fall. The Burke plans to send a different traveling version around the country.) You saw a picture of a man holding a huge fish and read that it was only a fraction the size of the 100-pounders. The hope, the dream certainly is that those fish will reappear.

"Build it and they will come," the mysterious prophecy from the movie Field of Dreams that brings the long-deceased 1919 Chicago White Sox to a Midwestern cornfield, has been reinterpreted as "demolish it and they will come." But will they really?

Maybe not. The steep gradients and big gravel that presumably gave big fish an evolutionary advantage — it takes a big fish to move big rocks into redds, or nests, on the river bed — are still there. But big chinook tend to be old chinook. Wild Fish Conservancy aquatic ecologist Nick Gayeski says he's pretty confident those legendary 100-pounders had to have been 8 years old, or around that. "You definitely need older fish to see the larger fish," agrees NOAA scientist George Pess. Pess suggests that to reach 100 pounds, "they'd have to be at least 5, perhaps 6 or 7." 

And reaching that age is nothing one can count on if one happens to be a large, tasty fish. One needn't be a salmon: Under relentless pressure from commercial fishing, fish of many species are, on average, getting smaller. (Climate change may make fish smaller, too.) Basically, chinook from the Elwha and the rest of Puget Sound reach the Pacific and turn right. They swim through big gyres, rotating currents, that take them along the coasts of Vancouver Island and Southeast Alaska. That means, Gayeski says, that "they're just repeatedly circling through the fishery." Forget the fact that Puget Sound chinook are a listed species; once they swim north, trollers of both nations reel them in.

A chinook that swims a gantlet of hooks or nets every time it nears the coast probably won't live to be very old. Therefore, unless people stop catching fish from the Elwha when they swim their repeated northern gyres, they'll never again grow that big. When Congress first voted to take down the dams — years before it actually provided money to do so — some people griped that there was no point in restoring the salmon runs if those damn Canadians were just going to catch them. It turns out that those Canadians do catch a lot of them. And so do those Alaskans, who also catch a lot of imperiled fish spawned in Canada.

An Elwha River Chinook comes to rest below the now removed Elwha Dam on Washington's Olympic Peninsula in a scene from DamNation. Ben Knight.

And nobody much seems to care. This frustrates Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee. Beardslee points out that while Alaskan-caught salmon are all considered sustainable, in fact, only 4 percent of the fish caught by trollers off Southeast Alaska are spawned in Alaska. (One finds, for example, Mark Bittman writing in the New York Times that the Alaskan king salmon fishery is evidently sustainable, with no sense of the complexities involved.) The other 96 percent include endangered Puget Sound chinook — some from the Elwha River — and fish from rivers along the west coast of Vancouver Island, where the habitat remains pristine, but some fish populations have plunged toward extinction.

The even-more-iconic 100-pound "June hogs" that once swam up the Columbia River every spring must have been older fish, too. They disappeared once Grand Coulee Dam blocked the way to their spawning streams. But faced with relentless fishing pressure outside the river mouth, they had started vanishing even before the concrete for Grand Coulee and its downstream predecessor, Bonneville, was poured. Boats fishing for Columbia River chinook had moved outside the river mouth by the 1920s, explains Wild Fish Conservancy aquatic ecologist Nick Gayeski. Once those offshore nets harvested more of the June hogs every time they swam through, "50 pecent disappeared before the dams," Gayeski says.

We "keep hearing this mantra that it's all about habitat," Beardslee says. But it's hard to blame everything on habitat when you go to west Vancouver Island in the middle of the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and you find rivers, he says, that are "in old-growth forests without a human trail that are down to the last couple of percent of the fish that they had 50 years ago." The explanation seems obvious: "The Southeast Alaska troll fishery takes 68 percent." Beardslee, whose organization does research along the B.C. coast, says, "It's crazy when we have pristine habitats that are basically barren."

And even relatively pristine habitats may be affected by climate change. It's not just that water temperatures will rise. In many places, heavy runoff will come earlier in the year. A really big issue, Beardslee says, is that when you combine climate change with lower low flows and higher high flows you have to "look at the challenges that causes for fish survival." He explains that "when you have [higher] high flows, you're scouring deeper" into the stream bed. A salmon redd constructed of small gravel may be washed away. One composed of large gravel may survive. To dig a nest in big gravel, in the Elwha or anywhere else, you need a big fish. Therefore, "some of these larger body types may actually be more helpful during these high-flow events." And yet, Beardslee argues, fishery managers still assume that young or old, a chinook is a chinook. In other words, we're "still managing them as a commodity."

That doesn't sound like a good idea if we want these fish around for the long term. But how long is that? What do we think about when we think about salmon surviving into the future? It turns out that huge, solid physical objects may be more evanescent than things we can't see. Those two massive dams that seemed permanent parts of the Elwha valley are both gone or almost gone. The older lasted slightly less than a century. The Klallam culture has lasted much longer.

The remains of a village excavated at Port Angeles date back a couple of thousand years. A little carved wooden Klallam bowl, dark with age and use, stood in a vitrine at the Burke's exhibit. Nothing linked the present to the distant past better than that bowl. It had once held oil from fish or marine mammals. It was at least 200 years old. The oil was still seeping out.

And the genetics of the salmon that — with luck — will swim again to the headwaters of the Elwha have lasted longer still. Two stone slabs in the Burke exhibit held partial salmon fossils found on the Olympic Peninsula. They've been dated at a million years. The fish have been there for a long, long time.

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