The Elwha River runs the length of 45 miles on the Olympic Peninsula and is home to all five species of pacific salmon. For the time being, however, it’s most known for being in the process of undergoing the largest dam removal project in history, part of the Elwha Ecosystem Restoration Project, an initiative of the National Park Service to remove the river’s two dams and restore it to its natural state. The dams, built in 1910 and 1927, have since blocked the way for migrating fish, eventually reducing the number that returned to the river to spawn from 392,000 to less than 3,000 in the late 20th century. While Pink salmon used to be the most numerous species in the entire river, their numbers dwindled all the way down to zero by the 1980s as a result of the dams.
The fish that ran through the dammed sections of river were also an important source of food for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, a sovereign Native American nation, as well as the many animals living alongside the water. The first dam removal was successfully completed during Spring 2012, with the second expected to be finished by September 2014, in what will be a long-fought victory for environmentalists. The battle of the dams has a lengthy history, with past owners applying for re-licensing as far back as 1968, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe consistently presenting resistance to the dams’ ongoing residency. The Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992 finally gave the project hope, but several delays of a red-tape nature delayed its beginning for nearly twenty more years.
The elimination of the dams is hoped to be an act that will kick-start a number of ecologically beneficial projects in the areas of sensitive species management, sediment management, restoration of anadromous fish stocks, and revegetation, with plans to restore the newly exposed land brought about from the removal with more than 400,000 native plants.
The Burke Museum will be showing an exhibit on Elwha River beginning in November, detailing the history of this massive environmental project, which will restore seventy miles of salmon spawning habitat. You can read more about the river and the goals of its restoration here.