Dam removal: no one has a model of how to go forward

Washington state's Condit and Elwha dam removals are getting attention. But no one has figured out a way to make the trend into a policy.

Crosscut archive image.

The original channel of the Elwha River and the east abutment of the Elwha dam.

Washington state's Condit and Elwha dam removals are getting attention. But no one has figured out a way to make the trend into a policy.

I missed the Oct. 26 breaching of the 98-year-old Condit Dam down on the White Salmon River, but I did watch the movie (actually, the video), and the other day, I took a real-life look at the Elwha River restoration project. A little west of Port Angeles, I walked down a short trail through some cedars to an overlook from which I could see the river, swollen from the drawdowns of lakes Aldwell and Mills, thundering down the bedrock cascade of the diversion channel beside the old Elwha Dam site. /a huge jackhammer on the end of a crane boom hammered at chunks of concrete; two big excavators loaded shovels full of silt and rubble into the beds of yellow Volvo dump trucks, which then crawled across a narrow temporary bridge and labored up the steep dirt road out of the canyon.

Trees were turning color along the old lake shore, now high above the water. Stumps of the old forest were visible above what was left of the lake. One of the excavators was scooping silt from the old channel, getting down to the river bed that used to be.

The 108-foot dam, with its weathered pre-World-War-I concrete, looked, not long ago, like a permanent a part of the landscape, much like the gray rock on which it stood. But now it was gone. The penstocks and power house remain, but eventually, they'll be gone, too. Forget Roman aqueducts, Mayan pyramids, the Great Wall of China — a large masonry structure doesn't have to be forever.

In 1992, when Congress first voted to take out the two Elwha River dams (ifthe Secretary of the Interior decided that dam removal was the best way to restore the Elwha's salmon and ecosystem), tearing them out seemed revolutionary. Now, it seems part of a trend, although one that seems to have more happening rather than being planned out along any clear model.

Dam removal has captured headlines well beyond the borders of Washington state. Since the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River bit the dust in 1999, more than 400 dams have been cleared from America's rivers and streams. Two years ago, the Savage Rapids Dam was taken out of the Rogue River, which it had blocked since 1921. Two years before that, the Marmot Dam was removed from the Sandy. Two years ago, the federal government, the states of Oregon and California, Indian tribes, environmental and economic interest groups agreed with the owner, PacifiCorp (which is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, which is largely owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway), on a process to — maybe — take out four hydro dams that block the Klamath River.

And then there is the Elwha, which — unless and until the Klamath dams come out, which at best won't happen before 2020 — is the biggest dam removal project in America's, or perhaps anyone else's, history.

Once upon a time, chinook, sockeye, coho, pink and chum salmon, plus steelhead, bull and cutthroat trout all swam up the Elwha to spawn in what is now the Olympic National Park. A quarter-million pink salmon crowded the river in good years. Individual chinook weighed 100 pounds. Now, distant descendants of those fish may once again swim in the 65 miles of river above the lower dam. Park visitors will be able to see them spawning (something they can't see in any other national park outside Alaska). Once they've spawned, critters of many kinds will be able to eat them. (It was research on another Olympic Peninsula river that first proved a wide array of animals, from bears to birds to deer, ate or at least nibbled salmon carcasses.)

And yet, there is this: dam removal may be chic, but the Elwha's budding success story does not provide a template for removing dams or restoring salmon runs anywhere else. Taking out the Elwha dams has required decades of planning and expenditure, but when push came to shove, it was pretty simple: No big economic interests hung in the balance. The dams supplied some of the power to a single Port Angeles paper mill, and kept silt out of an intake that supplied some municipal and industrial water to the city of Port Angeles. The dams' owner, Crown Zellerbach, which also owned the mill (since acquired by Nippon Paper Industries USA), was potentially liable for either installing fish passage or taking out the dams.

The Elwha S'Klallam tribe, which has a reservation at the mouth of the river, the National Park Service, and various environmental groups all wanted the dams gone. Other people wanted the benefits that the dams provided, but they didn't really care about the dams. As it happened, the federal government bought the dams, absolved the owner of liability, provided cheap BPA power to the pulp mill, and built another water intake for the city. It has also built a new hatchery for and provided additional land to the Elwha S'Klallam tribe. Basically, it bought off everyone but the bass fishermen who liked fishing in the lakes.

Of course, the federal government still had money with which to buy people off — although two years ago, it took a $54-million infusion of Obama stimulus funds to get the dam removal process back on schedule.

A comprehensive Klamath Basin solution would probably require even more federal largesse — and in this economic and political climate, that seems unlikely. A comprehensive Snake River solution might be politically feasible if BPA revenues were used, as they probably would be.

"To the extent there is a classic dam removal story," says Steve Pederey of Oregon Wild, the Elwha is it: The dams were pretty well the whole problem. They turned out to be more expensive to remodel for fish passage than to remove. Groups applied pressure. A major funding source was willing and able to buy off the interest groups. In contrast, he say, "The Klamath is a completely different model."

Two days after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar attended the ceremony marking the start of Elwha dam demolition, he announced that Klamath dam removal would cost hundreds of millions of dollars less than anticipated — $290 million, rather than $450 million — and would create 4,600 jobs. ("Every time it looks like the deal is faltering, there's a new press conference," Pedery says.) PacifiCorps ratepayers, mostly in Oregon, are on the hook for the first $200 million. The state of California will pick up the rest of the tab. Or will it? The state can always opt out. And, given its widely publicized financial woes, what are the chances that legislators will pony up even $90 million for fish?

And that's just the dams. Above the dams, Pedery says, the problems go well beyond the dams to include a century of over-promising water and destroying wetlands in the Klamath Basin. The first of the dams went up in 1918, the last in 1962. But long before that, in 1905, the federal government formed the Klamath Irrigation Project, and people started draining what by now amounts to three-quarters of the basin's original vast wetlands. (Nevertheless, the basin and its wildlife refuges still attract an estimated three-quarters of all migratory birds using the Pacific Flyway.)

Ten years ago, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off water to the federal irrigation district in order to help save endangered suckers. The next year, the secretaries of agriculture and the interior showed to ceremonially open the headgates — symbolizing the Bush administration's loyalty to farmers, rather than fish. But then, in September, returning chinook died by the thousands, after low water forced them to wait near the river mouth, where they were crowded together and prone to disease. Dam removal has been linked to habitat improvement and the resolution of water conflicts upstream. A complex deal may provide water to farmers and fish, plus the wildlife refuges. The irrigation district would get subsidized Bonneville Power Administration electricity for pumping. Some of the tribes would get new reservations on land bought by the federal government. (The Hoopa tribe opposes the current agreement.) Pedery's group has opposed the deal. He describes it as a "Christmas-tree approach: We will build consensus by putting something in for everyone." But, he says, upstream improvements are "contingent on a huge federal appropriation."

Salazar didn't mention that the rest of the project would cost an estimated $985 million, plus some $90 million a year in ongoing costs — or suggest how it would be paid for. Pedery notes that last spring, some House members tried attaching riders that would have forbade dam removal on the Klamath. they failed, but it "doesn't really seem like the House has any interest" in appropriating a lot of federal dollars for the scheme.

No one even knows how much it would cost to restore populations of salmon that spawn in the rivers flowing through heavily populated counties into Puget Sound. It would clearly require major infusions of cash that the state doesn't have, not to mention major land use decisions that wilt politicians like kryptonite. The Elwha project is "pretty amazing," says University of Washington geologist David Montgomery, author of King of Fish. However, he says, "you can contrast what's happening on the Elwha . . . with what's happened in Puget Sound." In counties around the Sound, "concern about salmon is immense . . . [but] we still haven't grappled with the significant problems." Of course, Montgomery says, compared to simply tearing out a couple of dams, the problems of the Puget Sound lowlands are far "messier."

Things get pretty messy along the Snake River, too. Twenty years ago, when people first advocated trashing the Elwha dams, some skeptics feared that it would be a step toward taking down dams on the Columbia and Snake. That seemed far-fetched at the time. Any connection with the Elwha project seems tenuous at best, but the idea of breaching Columbia River system dams no longer seems fanciful.

Obviously, no one is about to take a jackhammer to Grand Coulee. But the four lower Snake River dams look less secure than they once did. Those dams provide irrigation water to some farmers, cheap barge transportation to others, make Lewiston, Idaho, a deepwater port, and represent 3,000 megawatts of generating capacity. They also double the number of barriers that salmon spawned in the mountains of Idaho must navigate on their way to and from the Pacific. Those salmon include the red fish (sockeye) of Red Fish Lake, which in 1991 became the first Columbia River system salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Wild salmon advocates have argued for years that the best hope for restoring threatened and endangered Snake River salmon runs is to breach those dams. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have resisted that, crafting biological opinions for operation of the federal Columbia River dam system that have sidestepped the issue of breaching. Federal courts keep rejecting those opinions. Most recently, in August, U.S. District Judge James Redden tossed BiOp number four. His decision didn't call for breaching the dams, but his communications with lawyers in the case have suggested that any BiOp that ignores breaching as a possible Plan B will face an uphill battle. “The BiOp does not articulate a rational contingency plan for threatened and endangered species in the event that the proposed habitat improvements and other remedial actions fail to achieve the survival benefits necessary to avoid jeopardy,” Redden warned the feds in early 2009. What would a rational contingency plan look like? Redden proposed “developing a . . . plan to study specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns, as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail.” In other words, breaching had better be on the table. It isn't. The feds have a couple of years to come up with another plan. In the meantime, Washington politicians mostly avoid the issue, while some Oregon leaders have reportedly been trying to bring the various contending interest groups, tribes, and states together.

The spawning habitat is already protected. Above those four controversial dams, the tributary Clearwater and Salmon rivers flow from the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in the Idaho mountains. Of course, that's not the whole story, either. Take out the lower Snake River dams, and young fish still have to make their way downstream past McNary Dam, John Day Dam, The Dalles Dam, Bonneville Dam.

Take out the Elwha dams, and young fish have clear sailing to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific. And some 83 percent of the Elwha's watershed lies within Olympic National Park, so the spawning streams are as well protected as the ones in central Idaho.

I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't applaud the Elwha project and root for the fish to find their way up into the streams of Olympic National Park. But can you go home again — or, more to the point, can the salmon go home again?

The big salmon runs — or a reasonable semblance of them — will probably return, sooner or later. The big individual salmon — those legendary 100-pound chinook that seem to capture everyone's imagination — may or may not. Give the chinook a chance, and they'll revisit their old haunts. Give them the right evolutionary opportunities and pressures and who knows, maybe some of them will grow huge, just as their ancestors did.

Exactly which fish will populate the river has become controversial. The Lower Elwha S'Klallam tribe, which played a crucial part in the decision to take out the dams, plans to keep releasing fast-growing non-native steelhead from its hatchery. The conservation group Wild Fish Conservancy has filed notice of its intent to sue Olympic National Park, NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife under the federal Endangered Species Act in order to prevent that. The group argues on its web site that the "plan of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe . . . to continue releasing non-native Chambers Creek winter steelhead into the Elwha despite written requests from every responsible agency asking that they discontinue the program . . . [would harm] Puget Sound Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout without the proper authorization."

But there's no doubt that remnants of the old populations are still around. At the ceremony marking the start of demolition, Montgomery saw adult chinook banging their heads against the base of the dam, trying to get farther upstream. "That they're still doing it after 100 years shows you how resilient they are," he says. "Salmon want to come back." Still, "I'm not as otimistic about getting the 100-pounders back as I am about just getting some chinook." He notes that salmon size has been declining in rivers all over. People like to catch big fish. Ultimately, culling the big ones has to affect the gene pool.

The huge pre-dam chinook may have been shaped by environment, at least as much as they were shaped by heredity. Spawning in the canyons and digging redds in the heavy gravel upstream may have required large fish. It may still.

Whether or not the speed of the water or the size of the gravel made it advantageous to be a big chinook, suggests biologist George Pess of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the crucial factor, probably, was that those fish were relatively old. A salmon can grow only so big in four years, the life cycle for many chinook, but those fish returning to the upper Elwha were probably six or seven. In the cold water of their spawning streams, they probably spent an extra year, and then, after they left the river, some probably spent a year or two in Puget Sound before venturing out into the Pacific. By the time they returned, they had had enough time to grow really big. Even if they needed size to reproduce in the swift water or big gravel of the upper Elwha, environmental pressures by themselves couldn't have done the job. Pess explains that "in order to get that big, you have to be an older fish."

Can they grow that big again? That's a good question, Pess says. He likes a photograph, available on the web, of a California fish and wilflife employee holding an 85-pound chinook in Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento. (The creek flows west from the area around Mount Lassen, joining the Sacramento between Redding and Red Bluff.) It's no coincidence, he says, that the picture was taken in 2008. "That was the year that nobody was allowed to fish" off the coast of California or most of Oregon in order to protect Sacramento River fall chinook. "A fish that's going to be 90 pounds isn't going to make it through a net," Pess says. If Elwha chinook are fished heavily, he wouldn't hold his breath for 100-pounders making it back to the river again. (There's a fishing moratorium, but only for the five years after dam removal.)

What about the huge runs of pink salmon? The Elwha pinks can be counted in three figures now, he says. But judging by the recovery of pink salmon in the upper Fraser River system, from which the Hells Gate rockslide barred them for 30 years, or in some Alaskan rivers from which glaciers have just melted out, the chances seem pretty good. "If this population growth rate does anything like what it did on the Fraser," Pess says, the numbers will probably increase slowly for years, maybe decades, and then, all of a sudden, when ocean and other conditions are just right, they'll explode. He wouldn't be surprised to see tens of thousands of pink salmon in the next 20 years, but he would be surprised to see a quarter-million any time soon.

Building the dams represented a conscious trade of fish for electricity. Or should we say fish for a chance to profit from selling electricity. Or should we be even more explicit and say fish that somebody else might catch for a chance to profit from selling electricity. The trading of fish for electricity was equally conscious on the Columbia and Snake, but there the dams were public, and government weighed — or had the opportunity to weigh — costs and benefits. The Elwha dams were built privately, as speculative ventures, in hope of selling the electricity when the time came. As private entities, they had much in common with the Condit Dam, many other power dams on smaller rivers, the splash dams built by early logging companies, and the dams built by early irrigators. In all of those cases, private enterprise killed fish for the profit of people with no particular vested interest in maintaining fish populations. Government should have been weighing costs and benefits in those cases, too, but our society wasn't so regulated in those days, and government generally let dam builders do as they pleased. Even back before World War I, state laws were supposed to protect salmon on the Elwha. But, as Bruce Brown explains in his classic Mountain in the Clouds, those laws were not enforced.

We think of salmon returning to the streams in which they were spawned — as, of course, most do. But no salmon has spawned above the Elwha Dam for more than 90 years. No fish now living remembers the smell of vegetation and minerals in a stream above the dams. What will take anadromous fish back into the upper watershed isn't homing but straying. Some fish don't make it home. They wander into unoccupied spawning habitat someplace else. "It's that straying that gives them a way to spread," Montgomery explains. "It's the ones with wanderlust or those that simply get lost" that restart salmon populations in spawning streams once blocked by glaciers or volcanic eruptions or whatever. They're the ones that will restart populations in the Elwha's upper watershed. We'll just have to wait and see how soon.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.