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.

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