The ecology of dams and dam removal: a socio-ecological history of the Elwha (Part 4)

I am pleased to introduce a guest piece by Peter Brewitt, PhD Candidate University of California Santa Cruz and blogger at In his PhD research, Peter is working on the politics and ecology of two of the dams mentioned in this series. Thanks to Peter for the quick turnaround on this article – please thank him by checking out his work at the above links.

-Nate and the ECE

The ecology of dams and dam removal: a socio-ecological history of the Elwha (Part 4)

By Peter Brewitt

The Elwha River used to be 45 miles long. It flowed north out of Washington’s Olympic Mountains, from glaciers to taiga to lowlands and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was far enough west to pick up the moisture rolling in off the Pacific ocean, far enough east to avoid getting scoured out like the rainforest rivers on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. And… it was full of salmon.

Ten runs of anadromous salmonids returned to the Elwha, representing every Pacific salmon species. In odd years, pink salmon would surge in, hundreds of thousands of them. They joined steelhead, cutthroat, Coho, chum, sockeye, and Chinook, turning the river into an aquatic Serengeti.

The pinks stayed low in the stream, because upriver the Elwha is an obstacle course, canyon on canyon up to the mountains. But these canyons built Chinook into monsters. They stayed out in the ocean for up to twelve years and came back bulked up as large as 100 pounds – so big that the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe had to team up and link arms to pull them out of the water in a kind of ancient tug-of-war.

For the Elwha Klallams, who have lived on the river for 12,000 years (or since they emerged from the rocks a few miles upstream, depending on who you ask) the landscape produced a wealth of food. Not just salmon, but seafood from the estuary, and terrestrial species from up the watershed, which grew on a foundation of marine-derived nutrients as spawned-out carcasses and unlucky fry fed everything from alders to bears.


Conquering the Last Frontier – Aldwell’s book.

In the early 1900s, industrialist Thomas Aldwell decided to take the same power that produced hundred-pound fish and use it to produce electricity. His Elwha Dam, more than 100 feet tall, went up in 1912 at river mile five. The river blew it out immediately – a structure that’s not built down to bedrock could be no match for the Elwha. The tribe called it “the day the fish were in the trees.” Undaunted, Aldwell filled the hole and started cranking power out of the river. If you read his triumphalist autobiography, Conquering the Last Frontier, you can see a true believer, a man who was bringing civilization and progress and light to a damp and foggy wilderness.

He was also breaking the law. The state of Washington required fish passage (for food fish, e.g., salmon) on any dam, and the Elwha Dam didn’t have it – 100 feet is a little tall for an effective fish ladder. So Aldwell made a deal with the Washington Fish Commission – he would call the dam a collection point for a hatchery, replace the fishery that way, and forge ahead. The hatchery, though, failed completely, and in a few years it was shut down. In 1927 Glines Canyon Dam, twice as tall and far sturdier, went in a few miles upstream. With no salmon above the lower dam, no one worried about fish passage on this one. The dams helped power a paper mill in Port Angeles.

A five-mile stream with all its spawning gravel held upstream can’t support too many fish. The enormous Chinook disappeared, and the run was supplemented with normal-sized fish from a state hatchery. The last big pink return was in 1961. By the 1980s most of the Elwha’s fish runs had plummeted and were heading toward extinction.


But by then people were beginning to think differently about the Elwha. There had always been critics of the dams – the tribe, of course, from the beginning, and fishing folk, as the runs dwindled – but they had always been politically outweighed by a belief in Manifest Destiny and Putting the River to Work. Besides, the Olympic Peninsula was in the forestry business, and the Crown Zellerbach paper mill was one of the biggest employers in Clallam County. And even if people wanted the dams out, how could they do it?

To make change you need somewhere to set your political lever. For the Elwha this was the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process, which every privately owned hydro dam must undergo. Licenses are usually good for fifty years. Most of the dam removals that you hear about (Savage Rapids is an exception) were of hydro dams, and the opportunity FERC provides is one of the reasons. Often a license is renewed with minimal fuss, but the Elwha presented a strange case. The lower dam had no license – there was no FERC in 1912. The upper dam had a license but was now inside Olympic National Park, and you can’t license dams in national parks. The lower dam was also pretty rickety, threatening the Elwhas downstream and making it hard for them to get funds to build houses near the river mouth. After some debate, the tribe and four environmental groups intervened in the relicensing proceedings in 1986.

1986 doesn’t sound like it was all that long ago, but it was. This was mid-Reagan, with the environmental movement under fire from Sagebrush Rebels. There were no Pacific salmon on the endangered species list. Larry Bird was the best basketball player on earth. It was another time. And people thought it would be crazy to take out the dams.

The battle over the license, the dams, the river, and the fish took six tough years, but in 1992 Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. The Elwha Act mandated “full restoration.” The tribe, the enviros, and the agencies all knew that this would mean removal, with the dams’ power load (about 22 mw) replaced from the regional grid. But Congress didn’t feel quite comfortable ordering a dam removal in 1992 and so they told the Park Service to study the situation.

The Park Service studied the heck out of the situation, and in 1994 confirmed that, sure enough, to fully restore the river and comply with the Elwha Act, you’d have to take out the dams.  But this was after Newt Gingrich (remember him? He released a comeback album last summer) conservatized the House of Representatives, so political support would be scarce.


Slade Gorton (R-WA), in particular, was no longer so sure about the Elwha, even after co-sponsoring the Act. He was definitely sure about the Snake River dams, though: sure that they shouldn’t come out. These are four big power dams in Slade’s Eastern Washington political base, targeted by environmentalists for decades. Gorton couldn’t support dam removal with the Snake under pressure.

Port Angeles wasn’t sure about Elwha dam removal, either. The Olympic Peninsula had endured the social cataclysm of the Spotted Owl Wars in the late 80s and early 90s, and environmentalists were suspect in Clallam County. Besides, the people were used to the reservoirs, Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills. They protested, hard, and Gorton, who sat on the Senate appropriations committee, put his thumb over the money hose and let funding drip drip drip into the Elwha project. This stalemate wasn’t satisfying to anyone, though, and a group of respected Port Angeles citizens came together to evaluate the dams, learn from everyone involved, and make a recommendation about what would be best. In the end, they came out in favor of removal, one dam at a time, as long as the power and water supply were secure. This helped bring the community around.

In 2000 Slade Gorton lost to Maria Cantwell, and the federal government bought the dams. Money and science came together, and people began to figure out how to actually remove two enormous dams and bring back ten runs of fish.

It wouldn’t be simple. Dams are landscape changers, and the city of Port Angeles’ water intake, the mill’s industrial water supply, and the tribe’s fish would all be threatened with millions of cubic yards of silt pouring out from the reservoir. The removal had to wait for water treatment plants and hatcheries before restoring the ecosystem. But on September 17, 2011, with senators and members of congress and the Secretary of the Interior joining restorationists and environmentalists and, of course, the Lower Elwha tribe, the removal officially began.

It wasn’t hard to knock down Thomas Aldwell’s old dam, and by April the Elwha flowed past the site of the old powerhouse. Chinook and Coho and steelhead and a few even-year oddball pinks swam past river mile five for the first time since World War One. There are only 50 feet of Glines Canyon Dam left, and later this year, the Elwha will be 45 miles long again.


Dam no more. Elwha River, October 2012.

Helpful References

Bender, Phillip, M. (1997) Restoring the Elwha, White Salmon, and Rogue Rivers: a comparison of dam removal proposals in the Pacific Northwest. Journal of Land, Resources and Environmental Law, 189(17), 1–48.

Crane, J. (2011). Finding the river: an environmental history of the Elwha. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.

Egan, V. (2007) Restoring the Elwha: Salmon, Dams and People on the Olympic Peninsula, a Case Study of Environmental Decision-Making. Doctoral Dissertation, Antioch University New England

Lowry, W. (2003). Dam Politics: Restoring America’s Rivers. Washington, DC USA: Georgetown University Press.

Up next: Scientific infrastructure in the Elwha River 2000-2013 (Part 5) and Synthesis and Conclusions (Part 6).


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