Two Dams Down: Undamming the West, One River at a Time in Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground (excerpt)

by Cleo Woelfle-Erskine and Laura Allen

High in the Olympic Mountains, noble firs and incense cedars rise and disappear into the mist. Ghostly tendrils of moss hang from their branches, dripping rain and fog onto the thick needles that carpet the forest floor. The Elwha River begins here, as dozens of small tributaries. The constant rain, intercepted by needles and stored underground, emerges in springs, flows down step pools formed by boulders and fallen logs, and trickles over gravel smoothed and rounded by millennia of flow. The river gathers its streams. It gains current from Little River and Indian Creek and rushes down the steep valley in an icy blue-green torrent. Twenty-one miles from its mouth, it slams up against the slack water in Lake Mills behind Glines Canyon Dam, shoots out the spillway and runs 13 miles more, then stops, sluggish, behind Elwha Dam.

For thousands of years, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe has lived along the banks of the Elwha River and on the edge of Puget Sound in Washington State. The Klallam and the salmon sustained each other — the salmon with their flesh and the humans with prayer and ceremonies held along the banks of the river when they caught the year’s first salmon. The Elwha River was one of Washington State’s best salmon streams until two hydroelectric dams were built without fish passage in the early 20th century. With spawning runs interrupted by these dams, the sockeye salmon have disappeared, the chinook salmon and bull trout are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and the remaining fish struggle to survive.

Today’s tribal elders were children when the Elwha Dam was finished in 1915. Jim Bolstrom, a former commercial fisherman who now restores salmon habitat for the tribe, remembers stories of thousands of spawning chinook salmon dying in the dam’s shadow. "About a generation ago my dad wasalways talking about them being a hundred pounds, pounding their heads against the dams trying to get through. They want to get upstream, but they can’t."

The community protested but nothing was done to restore the wild runs of salmon until 70 years later. Now, after years of struggle alongside environmentalists and fisherfolk, the tribe is about to realize the dream of countless river lovers: the complete removal of the Elwha River’s two large dams.

The Elwha River Restoration Project signals a change in policy, politics, the status of indigenous nations, and — most profoundly — our conception of dams. They are no longer symbols of permanence. Their removal shows them to be only earth and concrete that can be reduced to rubble and hauled away.

The state hatchery’s rearing channel joins the river just below the lower dam. Every year a few salmon return there to try to spawn. Large rounded stones line the riverbed; the small gravel in which spawning salmon lay their eggs is blocked behind the dam. Next, the river flows through alder and maple forests along the Lower Elwha Klallam reservation, through Freshwater Bay, and into Puget Sound.

The Klallam built three villages along the Elwha — one on each side of the river at its mouth and one upstream at its confluence with Indian Creek. They harvested abundant runs of coho, chinook, sockeye, king, and chum salmon from the river, as well as shellfish from the beaches and lagoons. The Klallam village site at Tse-whit-zen (now a construction site in Port Angeles) was continuously occupied for 1,700 years. Mountains and lakes have stories connected to them, stories that tribal members draw on as readily as they do western science to understand the region’s ecology.

Disease epidemics traveled trade routes ahead of European settlers, decimating the Klallam and other tribes. Settlers flooded into the Elwha area in the nineteenth century. After Klallam leaders reluctantly signed the Treaty of Point-No-Point in 1855, the Puget Sound Cooperative Colony built a sawmill on the site of the Klallam village of Y’innis (Good Beach). Klallam from several villages depopulated by disease epidemics moved their cedar canoes and salmon-drying racks onto Ediz Hook, a long, narrow spit of sand that curves out into the sound. They traded smoked salmon for supplies that enabled them to survive in the changing economy. As late as 1937, Klallam houses and equipment could be seen there, though after a cannery was built on the hook in the 1870s, demand for Klallam smoked salmon waned.

The first dam on the Elwha was built to power Port Angeles’s mills. By federal law, dams on salmonbearing streams were required to have fish passage; the Olympic Power and Development Company knew that the dam would block spawning salmon. But the lure of all those trees was just too great. "There was choices made, and I’m not going to sit here and say they were bad choices — at that particular time," Port Angeles charter fisherman Ron Shepard comments in Unconquering the Last Frontier, a documentary about the Elwha Dam removal. "On the Elwha, they made a choice to put those dams in, and they produced water and electricity for a paper mill down here and at that time maybe that was what they thought was a good choice. Salmon weren’t real important. I guess nothing’s really important until it’s gone." The Olympic Power Company built the Elwha Dam illegally, then built a hatchery as "compensation." The hatchery was a fiasco. Its managers were unable to raise fish successfully, and it closed in 1922. The state later built another hatchery nearby, but like most human attempts to improve on natural spawning, this type of hatchery has proven a dismal failure at preserving the salmon runs.

Jim Bolstrom and his fellow tribal member Roger Hopie have worked on the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s restoration crew for ten years, placing logs and boulders in strategic locations along stream banks to restore the riffles and pools that support salmon. Roger shakes his head scornfully at the state-run hatchery. "What they do now is just pull them right off the redds [nests in riverbed gravel] and hit them over the head. That’s spawning." He laughs bitterly. "That’s spawning habitat — a bucket."

On Siebert Creek, overlooking a new logjam that will trap spawning gravel, Jim adds, "I disagree with their practices at the state hatchery. The fish live their whole lives in asphalt ponds. They forget how to act like salmon."

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has fought ceaselessly to restore salmon runs to the Elwha. In the mid-70s, they used tribal knowledge of salmon behavior to build a natural pond at the tribal hatchery, where they raise fish far more successfully than the state managers.

Young salmon fry are released into a large pool at the mouth of a tributary creek. "It seems to be more successful for the coho," Jim says. "We put stumps in for the salmon to hide in. It’s open so the smolts can leave. When they’re ready to go, they go. There’s a few that stay for a year or two — mama’s boys."

But all along the tribe worked for the only thing that could restore the salmon runs to their former abundance: the removal of both Elwha dams.

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has joined with environmental groups and commercial fishing organizations in demanding dam removal at federal relicensing hearings. The fight to remove the ElwhaRiver dams has focused national and international attention on the efforts by coalitions of tribes, fishing communities, and environmental groups to remove the Pacific Northwest’s salmon-blocking dams. These coalitions challenge the idea that healthy regional economies must be based on resource extraction that harms tribes and fishing towns. Inspired by the vision of restoring salmon to their rightful place on the Elwha River, we arranged to speak with Robert Elofson, a Lower Klallam tribal member and the tribe’s river restoration coordinator. One foggy April morning, we met Robert in the Goodwill parking lot in Port Angeles and followed his late-model pickup to the Elwha Dam. Surrounded by dense forest, the reservoir swelled behind the concrete arch, and water rushed over its floodgate.

Next, we drove to the Glines Canyon Dam inside Olympic National Park. Built without fish passage in 1926, this 210-foot-tall dam plugs the deep river canyon like a cork. Robert asked a passing power company worker to unlock the chain-link gates and we walked out onto the dam’s concrete spine and stared down at the river, barely visible in the canyon hundreds of feet below. We blurred our eyes and could almost see the river flowing free.

As water rushed over the spillway, Robert told us that plans to remove the dam began when he first came to work for the tribe. He believes that the dams will be removed and the river restored as he’s ready for retirement.

"It’s a worthwhile project to spend your whole career on," he said.