Elwha Ecosystem Restoration
The Elwha Ecosystem Restoration Project is a project of the U.S. National Park Service to remove two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, and restore the river to a natural state. It is the largest dam removal project in history and the second largest ecosystem restoration project in the history of the National Park Service, after the Restoration of the Everglades. The controversial project, costing about $351.4 million, has been contested and periodically blocked for decades.
The removal of the first of the two dams, the Elwha Dam, began in September 2011 and was completed ahead of schedule in March 2012. Removal of the second dam, the Glines Canyon Dam, was completed on August 26, 2014.
History of the Elwha River
Historically, the Elwha River was one of the few rivers in the contiguous United States that supported all of the anadromous salmonid species native to the Pacific Northwest. Ten stocks of anadromous salmon and trout species are known to have been present in the river before the dams were built: Spring- and summer/fall-run Chinook salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, Chum salmon O. keta, Coho salmon O. kisutch, Pink salmon O. gorbuscha, Sockeye salmon O. nerka, summer- and winter-run steelhead trout O. mykiss, Bull trout Salvelinus confluentus, and Cutthroat trout O. clarki clarki. The river was considered the most prolific fish producer on the Olympic Peninsula. It was particularly known for its very large Chinook salmon, weighing as much as 45 kilograms (99 lb). Prior to the construction of the two dams on the river in the early 20th century, an estimated 392,000 fish returned annually to spawn. By the late 20th century the number had declined to less than 3,000.
Pink salmon were historically the most numerous salmon species in the river with over 250,000 adult returns. By the 1980s that number fell to near zero. Coho occupied the largest area of the watershed, going up many of the tributaries, and to nearly the headwaters of the Elwha River.
The salmon runs provided a valuable food source for many animals such as black bear, coyotes, gray wolves, bald eagles, raccoons, and dozens of others. In addition, salmon carcasses would litter stream banks during prime fall and spring spawning, providing food for scavengers and decaying. In the Elwha River basin salmon once contributed over 300 tons of phosphorus and nitrogen every year, via decaying carcasses and the scat of predators and scavengers. In this way salmon played an important role in the overall health of the ecosystem. About 130 species benefit from the nutrients in salmon carcasses.
Today, about 83% of the Elwha River's watershed lies within Olympic National Park, more than any other river on the Olympic Peninsula. Most of the Elwha's basin is in pristine condition, unlike many other rivers on the peninsula whose basins have been harmed by extensive land use, especially logging. Above the dams, the Elwha's basin remains largely in a natural condition. Limited development has occurred below the park boundary. Water is withdrawn for municipal and industrial use and there is some logging.
Elwha Dam was built from 1910 to 1912 by Thomas Aldwell. The dam blocked passage for migrating fish, limiting them to the lower 4.9 miles (7.9 km) of river below the dam. In 1927 Glines Canyon Dam was built 7 miles (11 km) upriver of Elwha Dam.
Olympic National Park came into existence in 1938. In 1940, the park's boundaries were expanded to include Glines Canyon Dam and Lake Mills. The presence and operation of the dam was inconsistent with National Park Service policies to "...restore natural aquatic habitats and the natural abundance and distribution of native aquatic species, including fish, together with the associated terrestrial habitats and species", and with Olympic National Park objectives to "...conserve, maintain, and restore, where possible, the primary natural resources of the park and those ecological relationships and processes that would prevail were it not for the advent of modern civilization".
This created a precarious situation where a national park, tasked with preserving natural ecosystems, had a man-made system within its boundaries.
When Elwha Dam was built it was secured to the walls of the bedrock canyon, but not the bedrock underlying the river substrate. In 1912, shortly after the reservoir (Lake Aldwell) filled, pressure at the base of the dam built up so much that the foundation of the dam blew out. The void under the dam was plugged by adding fill material to the river below and upstream of the dam. Elwha Dam became operational in 1913. Because of this and other reasons, this dam has never been federally licensed to operate.
A Washington State law established in 1890 required fish passage devices on dams "wherever food fish are wont to ascend". Thomas Aldwell ignored the requirement. Fish Commissioner Leslie Darwin offered to waive that requirement if Aldwell built a fish hatchery adjoining Elwha Dam. Although Aldwell initially balked at this proposal, a fish hatchery was built and began operation in 1915. The hatchery was a fiasco. Its managers were unable to successfully rear fish. It was closed in 1922.
With the Glines Canyon Dam blocking sediment from reaching the Strait of Juan de Fuca for more than 80 years, most of it has been accumulating in Lake Mills. Historically, the sediment from the Elwha River would accumulate at the mouth of the river, expanding the delta and forming extensive sandy beaches. In addition, east-flowing currents would transport much of that sediment towards the bluffs of Port Angeles and onto Ediz Hook. However, since the sediment has been accumulating in Lake Mills, wave action and currents have eroded the beaches away until they have become nothing more than rocky or pebbly slopes. The mouth of the river has eroded back several acres over the years, shrinking the size of the Lower Elwha Klallam reservation and eliminating their once abundant clam beds.
Ediz Hook has also eroded away to the point that rip-rap has to be placed on the feature to protect Port Angeles harbor from the erosive effects of the wave action. The United States Army Corps of Engineers spends approximately $100,000 annually to control erosion of Ediz Hook and estimates the Elwha River contributed between 50,000 and 80,000 cubic yards of sediment per year before the dams were built. The dammed river contributes a negligible volume of sediment to Ediz Hook.
The decision to remove the dams
The combined power output of these dams generated approximately 19 mega-watt hours annually, a figure roughly equivalent to 38% of the electricity necessary to operate the Nippon Paper mill in Port Angeles. The dams blocked and nearly eliminated the once enormous runs of salmon in the river and their nutrients into Olympic National Park. The sediment was no longer making it to the sea, resulting in erosional problems on the shore. After the Elwha Dam once about a century old it still had never been secured to the bedrock, resulting in a potential danger to downstream communities.
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe had sought the removal of the two dams since they were built. In 1968 the owner of the dams, Crown Zellerbach Corporation, applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a license for Elwha Dam, and in 1973 applied to renew the license for Glines Canyon Dam. The Tribe opposed both applications, intervening before FERC. The environmental community got involved. By the 1980s there were twelve conservation groups opposing the relicensing process, including Olympic Park Associates, Seattle Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and American Rivers.
A series of political battles occurred locally and in Washington D.C., particularly with Senator Slade Gorton blocking the project, while Senator Brock Adams strongly supported the plan. Final approval came with the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992, which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to acquire and remove two dams on the river and restore the ecosystem and native anadromous fisheries. However, Senator Gorton continued to block and delay the process. By 2000 Gorton retreated, allowing the dams to finally be purchased.
In 1987 the dams, and all the assets of Crown Zellerbach, were acquired by the James River Corporation, which owned the dams until 2000. The corporation, concerned that it might someday be required to remove the dams and pay for river restoration, sought to transfer the dams to the federal government. In February 2000, the government bought the dams and related facilities for $29.5 million. Until removal, the dams had been operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, with National Park Service oversight.
When the federal government purchased the dams in 2000 the James River Corporation was freed from any further liability related to the damage caused by the dams in the past or potentially in the future.
Dam removal and river restoration
After the 1992 Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was passed, a number of alternates were explored by the Department of the Interior. The Final Programmatic EIS (Environmental impact statement), released in June 1995, concluded that the only way to fully restore the river was to remove both dams. The Final Implementation EIS, released in November 1996, concluded that sediment that had accumulated in the two reservoirs should be allowed to erode downstream naturally.
Removal of the Elwha Dam began in September 2011 and was finished in spring 2012, ahead of schedule. The dam removal process was originally projected to last two and a half to three years. The estimated cost of removing both dams was $40 to $60 million. The total cost of the Elwha River restoration is approximately $351.4 million. This price includes the purchase of the two dams and related facilities, construction of two water treatment plants and other facilities to protect water users, construction of flood protection facilities, a fish hatchery, and a greenhouse for growing native plants for revegetation.
Partnerships, research, and education
The partnership includes the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, in addition to, local and state governments and outside public interest groups. As the largest project ever of its kind, huge research opportunities are available and are being pursued by students and professors at Peninsula College, Eastern Washington University, and Western Washington University, as well as professors from many other universities.
The National Park Service and Olympic Park Institute are involved in education projects to inform the public about the history of the river, the dam removal process, ecosystem restoration and the return of salmon to the upper river.
- "Olympic National Park - Elwha River Restoration Frequently Asked Questions". National Park Service. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- "Restoration of the Elwha River Ecosystem". United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- "Elwha river Salmonid Assessment: Adult Weir Project. 2010 ANNUAL REPORT". Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- "Freeing the Elwha". National Park Service. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- "Elwha River Restoration: Background and History". American Rivers. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- National Parks Conservation Association (2004). National Parks. National Parks Conservation Association. pp. 31–34. ISSN 0276-8186. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- "Olympic National Park - Dam Construction". U.S. National Park Service. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- "Final Environmental Impact Statement". National Park Service. pp. 18–19. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- "Final Environmental Impact Statement". National Park Service. p. 191. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
- NPS Elwha Ecosystem Restoration Page
- Elwha Restoration Documents Online
- Olympic Park Institute
- Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe
- Peninsula College Center for Excellence Elwha Program
- Historical Background on Elwha Dam Removal
- Elwha River Webcams, showing removal process
- Webcam Index Page, All 6 time lapse cameras from the project
- Interior Images of the Elwha and Glines Hydro Plants