This week, workers began tearing down two massive dams on Washington’s Elwha River. Together, the 108-foot high Elwha Dam and the nearby 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam have stood for nearly a century — as barriers between seven distinct native salmon runs and their natal streams in the Olympic National Park.
The removal and restoration, hailed as the largest in American history, represents the culmination of more than 20 years of effort by local tribal members, dedicated activists and a few good attorneys, including an Earthjustice lawyer named Ron Wilson.
In the late 1970’s, long before dam removal became a trend, Wilson provided legal expertise on what is believed to be the first challenge to a dam’s operating permit. Attorney Richard Rutz, with advice and support from Earthjustice, argued before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that laws governing the Olympic National Park prohibited granting a new permit to one of the dams.
That initial legal challenge set in motion a process – accompanied by a long campaign for political support – that finally resulted in a 1992 Congressional mandate to bring down both fish-killing structures. Now, scientists believe the roughly 3,000 fish surviving in the 4 miles of currently undammed Elwha could swell to a population of nearly 400,000 salmon, steelhead and bull trout spawning in 70 miles of pristine habitat enclosed within the national park’s stunning and protected temperate rainforest and mountains.
The Elwha’s rebounding salmon runs will greatly benefit the national park’s ecology and wild creatures, as well as the Puget Sound’s struggling orcas. Increased salmon population will also provide cultural and economic sustenance for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and other regional fishing communities. Moreover, access to the higher, colder and protected habitat above the dams means Elwha salmon have a much better chance to thrive as the Earth’s climate warms, and as reduced mountain snowpacks, declining spring runoff and a changing ocean increase threats to salmon.
Hopefully, the removal of the Elwha dams, along with other recent and successful removal efforts on Oregon’s Rogue and Sandy rivers, will spur other critical salmon restoration projects in the region.
In particular, the Columbia-Snake dams must undergo re-evaluation in the wake of a recent U.S. District Court verdict – won by Earthjustice attorneys – which found the government’s Columbia and Snake River salmon plan illegal for the third straight time.
Judge Redden ordered that a new plan, known as a biological opinion, must include full consideration of the option to breach four costly and outdated Lower Snake River dams as a means of restoring the Columbia Basin’s struggling salmon. This new biological opinion should apply the lessons learned on the Elwha and in other removals.
The Columbia-Snake Basin – which includes parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Nevada – is one of the most dammed river systems on Earth. Before the dams, sockeye run estimates reached 3 million fish, and all salmon runs in the basin numbered between 10 million and 16 million salmon a year. Human development has seriously impaired these legendary runs, and 13 populations of the basin’s salmon and steelhead are officially in danger of extinction. The four remaining Snake River stocks are either threatened or endangered.
Fortunately, some of the best salmon habitat left in the lower 48 states still exists within the mountainous Snake River headwaters. These cold, clean, high-elevation streams can produce abundant salmon runs in the near term, and provide an invaluable haven for salmon during global warming.
The Elwha’s revival illustrates what can be achieved if we are willing to work together to follow science and the law to protect our most productive salmon watersheds. The good news brought by the Elwha should inspire us all to tackle the crisis in the Columbia Basin and restore its wild salmon and steelhead to healthy, abundant levels.