Removing Barriers to Salmon
Michael Hanson for The New York Times
For a century, since the first dam was built in 1912 to supply power for the town of Port Angeles and later a lumber mill, salmon have been trying, futilely, to follow their genetic GPS upstream on the Elwha. Instead, five miles south of where they enter the river from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they hit a concrete wall.
“They pool at the bottom and go in circles,” said LaTrisha Suggs, the assistant director of river restoration for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. “They swim up, they swim down, they swim up, they swim down.”
Biologists say that will change once the dams are fully removed, sometime in 2014, and that a migrating salmon population that has declined to about 3,000 fish will steadily begin replenishing itself from a small stock carefully perpetuated in rearing channels since the 1970s to preserve their lineage as “transitional species.”
These Chinook — one of six salmon species, all of which exist in the Elwha — are distinct from salmon that enter Puget Sound and those that spawn in rivers off the Pacific Ocean. Models show that up to 392,000 fish will fill 70 miles of habitat now blocked by the dams, matching the predam peak. Chinook here once grew as big as 100 pounds, and experts say they should reach that size again.
“Because of the habitat we have,” said Brian Winter, the park’s project manager for the restoration project, “we expect success.”
It will have taken a long time and a lot of money to achieve. The first President George Bush signed off on the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act after it was passed by Congress in 1992, and momentum had been building for more than a decade before that. The total cost, $350 million, includes paying for new power sources and water treatment plants in the area as well as fish hatcheries and extensive revegetation projects.
The restoration of the Elwha comes as dams, often facing expiring operating licenses, are to be removed from several prominent rivers, including the White Salmon in Washington and the Penobscot in Maine. Four dams are scheduled to be removed in the Klamath River in southern Oregon in 2020.
Many conservationists see this as momentum for more ambitious goals, most notably their push to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington that provide electricity, water and a channel for barge traffic between the ocean and the powerful agricultural interests inland. Their hopes increased when President Obama recently nominated Rebecca Wodder, the former president of American Rivers, which has pushed for dam removal on the Snake and elsewhere, to become assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. The nomination, which has yet to be confirmed, is widely opposed by dam supporters.
Yet even advocates for larger dam removals acknowledge that they can draw only limited comparisons between the remote Elwha and dams like those on the Snake. The two dams on the Elwha, the Glines Canyon Dam and the Elwha River Dam, provided enough power on average for about 14,000 homes and allowed for no fish passage. The dams on the Snake can power a city the size of Seattle and have elaborate systems for fish passage, though a federal judge has repeatedly found them inadequate.
Even as it is planning to
ambitiously promote the Elwha
restoration, the Obama
administration opposes removing
the dams on the Snake, as did
administrations before it. The
judge, James A. Redden of the
Federal District Court for the
District of Oregon, is expected
to rule soon on a government
plan to improve protections for
salmon in the Snake and Columbia