Wandering the West
November 23, 2010
Next fall a watershed moment in environmental history begins in the Pacific Northwest. The watershed is the Elwha River drainage, and the moment comes when construction crews begin deconstructing the Elwha Dam and its upstream cousin, the Glines Canyon Dam.
A century ago developers built the Elwha Dam for hydroelectric power on the Olympic Peninsula, the appendage of land across the water from Seattle and Puget Sound. Five miles upstream from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which leads from the open Pacific to Puget Sound, the dam was built fast and cheap. There were no provisions made for fish ladders and, suddenly, thousands of years of the natural cycles of eight species of fish came to a halt. Five species of salmon and three of trout suddenly couldn’t swim upstream from the ocean to the spawning grounds in the gravels of the river.
That first dam washed out but was quickly rebuilt. The Glines Dam went in upstream from the first dam. The dams made for beautiful blue reservoirs, lined with green forests, but they killed off the salmon runs. Eventually they filled with sediment, which could not wash downstream and replenish eroding stream banks. Gravel also could not wash downstream and replenish the gravel beds in the five miles of river below the dam. Without gravel, the salmon had no place to spawn.
This happened in drainage after drainage along the West Coast, and most of the Pacific salmon run outside of Alaska and Canada crashed. Then in 1992 Congress approved legislation to tear down the Elwha River dams, restore the river and make a home again for the salmon. The studies are all done, and the demolition begins late next summer.
It’s good news for the reluctant landlord of the dams and reservoirs, the National Park Service. Olympic National Park occupies the middle of the Olympic Peninsula. Mount Olympus, the centerpiece of the park, gets two hundred inches of rain each year, turning the old-growth forests around it into dark, moss covered trees of mystery.
Olympic is mostly a hiking park. Congress in 1988 declared 95 percent of it as wilderness, so few roads penetrate very far into it. Outside of southern Utah, it’s probably the largest tract of undeveloped wilderness in the lower 48. In the winter there are maintained cross-country ski trails and a snow play area in the Hurricane Ridge area. There’s good hiking there in the summer, and also in the Elwha Valley, above the dams.
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Olympic has another, totally different side. Disconnected from the rest of the park, Olympic also protects 73 miles of wild Pacific shoreline on the peninsula. The coastline is a jumble of rock hoodoos just offshore, often shrouded in mist, accompanied by a soundtrack of crashing surf. Walk these beaches and imagine offshore lumber schooners working their way south from the lush forests to booming California cities. Not much has changed on the coast since then.
Back to the Elwha River: Next fall they’ll start the process of tearing down the dam and empting the reservoirs into the river channel. The experts who’ve studied this backwards and forwards say salmon could be swimming up the river’s full 70 miles of river and creeks within a year, and that within 15 to 20 years the whole river system could look much as it once did. This is supposed to be the model for future dam removals in the West. Sometimes progress means going backward.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
Insider tip: After a day’s hike, take a soak in one of the park’s hot springs. Sol Duc is the most accessible, and most developed.