A Trip to the Elwha: Part 6, A Perfect Storm of Opportunity

© Jon Sharpe, 2013

(Continued from Part 5 of this series, "It's About the Salmon.")

The Elwha Dam flooded 700 acres of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe's ancestral homeland, including the sacred creation site of the Klallam people. When the dam began generating electricity, the tribe couldn't afford to buy it. For decades, the tribe lobbied for dam removal. Many tribal members never believed the dams would be taken down.

An opportunity arose in 1986 when the license for the Glines Canyon Dam came up for renewal. The tribe filed a motion to intervene with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), asking for relicensing to be denied and calling for both dams to be taken down. Environmental advocates joined the cause and took the issue to the federal level.

A number of factors favored dam removal. For one, the dams were illegal. First, neither of the dams had a fish ladder, and, second, one of the dams was in Olympic National Park. Park boundaries expanded after Glines Canyon Dam was built in 1927 and the dam and its reservoir, Lake Mills, were now within park boundaries. The Dept of the Interior, parent agency of the National Park Service, joined the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and environmental groups, claiming that FERC didn't have jurisdiction in the national park.

Salmon in the fish ladder at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle, a great place to see the fish up close as they migrate. © Jon Sharpe, 2013.

Meanwhile, the Electric Consumers Protection Act of 1986 required FERC to consider fish and wildlife protection and enhancement equally with power production and economic need. Accordingly, FERC issued an environmental impact statement in 1991 that showed it would cost less to remove the dams than to add fish ladders to meet current environmental standards.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee drafted legislation to buy the dams (Dept of the Interior bought the dams in 2000 for $29.5M) and invited the James River Corporation. then owner of the dams, and Daishowa America, owner of the paper mill, to agree to dam removal in exchange for Interior's agreement to pay for it. The mill was also guaranteed cheap electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration to replace the electricity from the dams. With industry support, the Elwha Restoration Act was signed in 1992. But it wasn't funded.

Many Port Angeles residents still were opposed to removing the dams. Some wanted to honor the technological achievement of building the dams; workers had given their lives to construct them. The dams produced cheap electricity and some felt they should be left to do what they were built to do. Residents and visitors used the beautiful reservoir lakes for fishing and recreation. One said - It's a source of electricity that works. It's nice to see the lakes there. I'd just say No to salmon, it's not a vital food, it's a luxury. A citizens group called Rescue Elwha Area Lakes (REAL) formed to lobby legislators to repeal the Elwha Restoration Act.

US Senator Slade Gorton opposed taking out the dams. He also controlled federal funding for dam removal. It was only after a counter group, the Elwha Citizens' Advisory Committee, supported a staged removal of the dams that Gordon budgeted funds for the Department of the Interior to buy the dams. Washington Rep. Norm Dicks secured the funding to remove them. Dicks introduced 14 separate appropriations bills over 4 administrations and secured federal stimulus dollars. Mitigation projects to secure community support for the dam removal included a new state-of-the-art water treatment plant for Port Angeles. The final price tag for the Elwha River Restoration was $325 million, three times the original projection. Water quality facilities and operation for Port Angeles cost $178 million. Actual dam removal and ecosystem restoration amounted to $61 million.

Even with a perfect storm of opportunity, twenty years passed from enactment of the Elwha Restoration Act in 1992 to the beginning of dam removal in September, 2011. And now it's underway, this magical opportunity to restore a river that runs out of a pristine national park. Removing the dams and freeing the Elwha is a unique chance to restore a river and its salmon runs.

Next in Part 7, the final post in the series: The Elwha River Reborn

Mapes, Lynda. Elwha A River Reborn. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2013.

A Trip to the Elwha: Part 5, It's About the Salmon

© Jon Sharpe, 2013

(Continued from Part 4 of this series, "The Challenge of the Sediment.")

It is because of the salmon that the Elwha dams are gone. Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal members had wanted the dams removed long before they petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) not to relicense the Glines Canyon Dam in 1986. (The Elwha Dam was never licensed).

Before the Elwha Dam was built, the Elwha River was home to ten fish runs, and that's no fish story. All five Pacific salmon species - sockeye, pink, chum, coho, and chinook - as well as steelhead and bull trout returned to the Elwha to spawn. Fish swam up and down the river all year long. The chinook were monstrous, spending as long as 7 years at sea and growing to 100 pounds. Tribal elder Louisa Sampson recalled that there were so many salmon on the Elwha you could walk across the river on their backs. Today, the Elwha sockeye are extinct, the pink are nearly gone, and chinook, steelhead and bull trout are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The steelhead run amounts to 100-200 fish, and the chinook catch is limited to ceremonial use.

The Elwha chinook are called tyee which means chief. They have continued their autumn return for 100 years, but their efforts have been futile because the migration was blocked by the Elwha Dam. The habitat in the 5 miles of river below the Dam became unsuitable for spawning since it lacked the gravel, pools, side channels and riffles, (rocky shoals or sandbars just below the water's surface) the fish need to build a nest. Before the dams were removed, the chinook would swim to beneath the Elwha Dam and hang in the water, or line up facing the dam as if they were waiting for a passage to open. Many thousands died unspawned at the base of the dam. Bringing back the tyee is what the Elwha River restoration is about. It is happening, in part at least, because of native fishing rights.

The Lower Elwha Klallam tribal crest is painted on the side of their Tribal Visitor and Community Center. The tribe's motto is "The Strong People".

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was once the largest tribe on the Olympic Peninsula. Beginning in the 1850's, white settlers pushed the Indians off their village sites where the Port Angeles waterfront is today. Tribal members supported themselves by subsistence fishing and selling fish to the townspeople. That worked until 1910 when the river was dammed and Washington State game wardens began to arrest and jail tribal fishermen for fishing in the Elwha. In 1935 when federal land agents came to Port Angeles to appraise farms for the purpose of acquiring 3840 acres for a reservation, the assistant land negotiator wrote that tribal members survived by beach combing, unable to compete with the fishing industry and prevented by state Fish and Game laws from catching enough fish for their own food. The report states, "A dam on the Elwha River, owned and maintained by a pulp company, has ruined the spawning grounds of the trout and salmon." The tribe did not get their reservation until 1968. It amounts to 372 acres.

In 1974, the Boldt Decision of the US District Court ruled that the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point in which the tribes ceded their land, reserved tribal fishing rights in perpetuity. This meant that tribal members were entitled to fish the Elwha River and other traditional fishing areas in Washington without being harassed. It was a huge victory for the tribes. But now that they were guaranteed the right to fish, the habitat was degraded and the runs were dying. There were few fish in the Elwha.

Beatrice Charles was one of four Lower Elwha Klallam women elders who testified before the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 1992. She said, "I would like to see the dams removed while I'm still alive." Later that year, the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was enacted. Final approval didn't come until 2004, following an agreement between the National Park Service, City of Port Angeles, and the tribe. Dam removal began on September 15, 2011. Beatrice Charles is buried in the tribal cemetery on Place Road, near the mouth of the Elwha. Her tombstone reads, "In loving memory of our Auntie Bea, May 14, 1919 - April 20, 2009."

The young tribal member staffing the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal gift shop in Port Angeles told me that Beatrice Charles was his fiancée's Auntie Bea. He was hopeful about the Elwha restoration: "They say that in five years, the fish will come back. And that will be good for the tribe."

Next in Part 6 of this Story: A Perfect Storm of Opportunity

Mapes, Lynda. Elwha A River Reborn. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2013.

A Trip to the Elwha: Part 4, The Challenge of the Sediment

© Jon Sharpe, 2013

(Continued from Part 3 of this series, History of the Elwha River Dams)

A river carries cobbles, gravel, silt and logs along its length. These materials build the riverbed, side channels and gravel bars, providing fish and animal habitat. A river is in constant motion.

The Elwha River dams interfered with the river's lifecycle, blocking the natural flow of materials from the mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lacking replenishing sediment, habitat degraded in the 5-mile stretch of river between the Elwha Dam and the Strait. Salmon runs declined precipitously. As sand disappeared from the beach, so did the clams and the swimming holes. The Strait chewed back the shoreline and since 1939, 22 acres of land has been lost to coastal erosion at the river delta. On the reservation, coastal erosion ranged from 125' to 500' of shoreline. Ediz Hook, a spit that shelters Port Angeles Harbor, created from sand carried by the Elwha, eroded from lack of river sediment and been artificially maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers since 1974.

Before the Elwha River restoration began, 24 million cubic yards of sediment - silt, cobble, sand, gravel, and boulders - was trapped behind the two dams. It was enough to fill 8 Safeco Fields to the top of the roof. It would be by far the largest volume of sediment ever released in a dam removal project. How to manage a controlled release of sediment was the biggest challenge of the Elwha restoration.

An Environmental Impact Assessment estimated it would cost $22 million to dredge and slurry the sediment to the Strait. This was not practical; the river would have to carry the sediment. But it had to happen gradually, to prevent the river from digging through the soft mud and leaving a moonscape of unnatural, dangerous cliffs. Scientists wanted the river to meander through the sediment on the reservoir lake beds, sluicing it like a fire hose, and shaping the river in stepped-down terraces. To do this, the river had to be lowered gradually, by first by emptying the reservoirs, then removing the dams from the top, a few feet at a time.

In July 2011, the reservoirs behind both dams were drawn down. The Elwha Dam, closer to the river mouth, was removed first, beginning in September, 2011. The water level was allowed to drop gradually as the spillways, penstocks (pipes that carried water to the powerhouse), and powerhouse were removed. 200,000 cubic yards of fill was removed from behind the dam to excavate the original river channel.

The taller, narrower Glines Canyon Dam was removed by lowering Lake Mills by 17 feet, to the bottom of the spill gates, then removing the first 17 feet of the dam to the new water level. Dam removal continued by taking out notches on alternating sides of the dam and gradually lowering the water level. The headgate house, penstock, and powerhouse were removed. The spillway and a massive concrete block called the thrust block will remain as viewing platforms for the restoration project. The project will be stopped for up to 6 months of the year to protect migrating fish in the lower river. Scientists built the models for restoring the river, but would nature do what scientists expected?

The Elwha sluices sediment as it finds a new channel on the lakebed of former Lake Aldwell. Iron is precipitating in red streaks on the riverbank as it is exposed to air.

As predicted, the sediment has been the biggest challenge of the restoration so far. In April 2013, nearly 200,000 chinook smolts were released from the state fish hatchery. The morning after the release, hundreds of dead smolts were found at the river mouth and sandbars, their gills clogged with sediment. The turbidity or amount of sediment in the water had doubled shortly after the fish were released. The salmon suffocated. The habitat manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe said he thought few of the smolts made it into the Strait. The Clallam County Fish and Wildlife biologist said, "We'll try not to make the same mistake." The hatchery planned to release 900,000 juvenile salmon in June. I expect they did since the rearing pens were empty when I visited.

Also in April, with two-thirds of the Glines Canyon Dam removed, the sediment overwhelmed the new Elwha Water Facilities Project, built by the Department of the Interior for the city of Port Angeles in 2011. Removal of the final section of the upper dam is on hold until the Water Facility is fixed, and most likely until next spring after the fish migration. It's estimated that the river has carried just 18% of the sediment downstream so far. Most of it is waiting behind the last 60 feet of the Glines Canyon Dam.

The Elwha carries glacial flour as it flows into the former Lake Mills. Lake Mills was as deep as the treeline.

I began my river tour at its muddy mouth, so it was striking to see the glacial, teal color of the Elwha at the south end of former Lake Mills. That stretch of river was always beyond the reach of the dams. Where it traverses the lakebeds and dam sites, the river is brown with sediment. That sediment is depositing gradually along 13 miles of the river, from Lake Mills to the beach. The habitat is recovering. Where the Elwha meets the Strait, the rocky beach is covered with sand and a sandbar splits the river as it pours into the Strait. Just a few weeks ago, the sandbar wasn't even there. All this change, from just 18% of the sediment.

Next in Part 5 of this Story: It's About the Salmon - The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe

Mapes, Lynda. Elwha A River Reborn. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2013.

A Trip to the Elwha: Part 3, History of the Elwha River Dams

© Jon Sharpe, 2013

(Continued from Part 2 of this series, "A River Restored.")

Port Angeles was a frontier town in 1890 when Thomas Aldwell arrived. Before then, the Klallam people had lived richly in the Elwha watershed for centuries. Their Tse-whit-zen burial site has been carbon dated to 1500 BCE.

Aldwell was a developer who saw the potential for industry in Port Angeles, which was surrounded by forests, everflowing rivers, and a deep harbor. Aldwell decided that Port Angeles needed a paper mill. And a paper mill needed electricity. Aldwell staked a claim on the Elwha River. He began talking up plans to build a dam, signing power purchasers at a steel mill in Port Townsend, the Bremerton Navy Yard, Fort Worden and Fort Flagler. Then he signed up Chicago investors. The resources were vast and excitment was high over the promise of industrial development on the Olympic Peninsula. The river was just waiting to be put to productive use. Aldwell was a local hero.

Construction began on the Elwha Dam, 5 miles from the mouth of the river, in 1910. The dam began to produce electricity in 1914. The reservoir that collected behind the dam and flooded the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe's sacred creation site was named Lake Aldwell.

Although fish ladders had been required on dams in Washington since Washington was a territory, the Elwha Dam never had a fish ladder. The State fish commissioner offered to allow the dam without a fish ladder in exchange for a hatchery; the dam would even serve as an obstruction where fish could be captured for the hatchery. In exchange for being allowed to build the dam, Aldwell agreed to build the hatchery and donate the land to the state. But the hatchery soon failed, the state turned its back on the fish, and Aldwell never turned over the land. In 1919, Aldwell sold the dam to Zellerbach Paper Company and Zellerbach built the Washington Pulp and Paper Company. The paper mill underwent many changes of ownership; today it is owned and operated by Nippon Paper Industries of Japan.

Nippon Paper Industries USA is located on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles. It was the first paper mill in Port Angeles and was powered with electricity from the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams.
The second dam, Glines Canyon Dam, was built 8.6 upriver from the Elwha Dam. This dam was completed in 1927 by Northwestern Power and Light Company, the successor to Aldwell's Olympic Power and Development Company. It was built to power the expanded Zellerbach paper mill. Zellerbach bought the dam in 1937. The reservoir behind Glines Canyon Dam was named Lake Mills.

The Elwha dams were built during the heyday of dam building in Washington. Industrialists were busy developing nature for profit, and the state and public supported their efforts. Ecological impacts and the native people and culture were overlooked. Unbelievably, the Zellerbach mill was built atop Tse-whit-zen, the ancient Klallam village and burial ground at the foot of Ediz Hook. At the height of development, there were 3 paper mills and over a dozen large industrial facilities in Port Angeles. The only industry that remains today is the Nippon mill.

The Zellerbach - now Nippon - paper mill owned both dams from 1937 to 2000, when they were sold to the US Dept of the Interior. Since 1949, the only customer for the electricity the dams produced has been the mill. Until the dams were shut down in 2011, the Elwha River dams had supplied 40% of the mill's electricity. The rest came from the Bonneville Power Administration grid.

Next in Part 4 of this series: The Challenge of the Sediment

Mapes, Lynda. Elwha A River Reborn. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2013.
Museum at the Carnegie, Clallam County Historical Society.