Reviving The Elwha
In September of 1911, a game warden went to inspect the newly built Elwha Dam just west of Port Angeles, and was horrified by what he saw.
Thousands of salmon lay dying in pools at the foot of the dam. Thousands more thrashed around them, smashing themselves against the concrete walls, trying to climb the barricade.
“I have personally searched the Elwha River and tributary above the dam, and have been unable to find a single salmon,” the warden reported. “If they do not get to their spawning grounds it will mean a very serious drawback to the fish industry of this county.”
Thus began what an American writer called “one of the darkest chapters in the history of the West,” killing annual runs of half a million fish, and devastating the Klallam natives who live where the Elwha spills into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But that chapter is finally ending. This summer, our neighbours across the strait are getting ready to restore the Elwha to its original state, as part of the biggest dam-removal project in U.S. history.
The tale of the Elwha is relevant to Victorians, because we share an ecosystem with Olympic peninsula, and because our neighbours’ conduct holds up a mirror to our own. Considering our governments’ present infatuation with run-of-river hydro and the just-announced $6.6-billion Site C dam, it’s not too surprising to learn that the destruction of the Elwha can largely be blamed upon a Canadian.
Thomas Aldwell (photo left), a young Ontario banker, landed in Washington State in 1890. “Seattle and Port Townsend were both ideal places for an ambitious young man to stake out a claim,” he recalled in his memoirs. “Free land, timber, water – promise was everywhere. But these towns were not the frontier any more. I wanted something newer.”
Port Angeles fit the bill. The town was so primitive at the time that none of its stores or homes had electricity, and its flickering street lights relied upon a tiny steam-powered generator. Aldwell set up a real-estate business, and spent his weekends exploring the Olympic mountains. When he saw the cascades of the Elwha (see the 1887 photo at top right), channeling the Olympics’ 3.6 metres of annual rainfall, he knew he’d struck it rich. “Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a wild stream crashing down to the strait,” Aldwell wrote. “The Elwha was peace, power, and civilization.”
The laws of the American frontier encouraged dams and the private ownership of water to spur economic development, and Aldwell took full advantage of them. He bought up land along the river, ignoring the Klallam people downstream, and with the help of Winnipeg financier George Glines, in 1910 he built the Elwha Dam (photo right). Fourteen years later, upstream at Glines Canyon, he opened an even larger hydroelectric dam, 21 storeys tall.
The dams transformed Port Angeles. In 1914, Seattle tycoon Michael Earles built a giant lumber mill on the town’s waterfront – and directly atop the Klallam’s ancestral Tse-whit-zen village – employing 1,000 men and producing 14 million board-feet a month. (Earles also erected the nearby Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort upon a Klallam site used for vision quests.) In 1920, Crown Zellerbach built a paper mill in town, and Aldwell sold electricity to clients across the peninsula, including the U.S. Navy base at Bremerton.
There were consequences, however. Even though Washington state law required dams to have fish ladders, Aldwell built his without them, and the Elwha’s huge runs of all five species of Pacific salmon declined to a few thousand fish. The Elwha once dumped tons of sediment out to the strait, creating vast clam beds and Ediz Hook, the six-kilometre spit of land that protects Port Angeles’ harbour. (A diagram at left shows how Ediz Hook evolved.) But Aldwell’s dams trapped the sediment instead, starving the clams and forcing the town to spend millions shoring up its breakwater.
The Klallam had always opposed the dams. So in the 1980s, when the dams came up for licence renewal, the Klallam saw their chance. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups joined the legal fight. The lumber mill was gone, they argued, and the old dams didn’t generate half the electricity needed to run the paper mill. The Elwha was a perfect candidate for reclamation, because most of its watershed remained intact, protected inside Olympic National Park. Eventually the U.S. Congress agreed, and passed an act in 1992 mandating the Elwha’s restoration.
Now the $350-million project is officially underway. This is the last year to see the dams or paddle on their reservoirs; next summer, contractors will dismantle the dams and then blast away the foundations, and then volunteers will swarm the newly-exposed banks of the river, sowing more than 400,000 native plants raised in local greenhouses. Here’s an animation of the scheme for removing the massive Glines Canyon Dam:
Restoring the Elwha will benefit fishermen and kayakers, but obviously it means most to the Klallam. The dams also flooded the sacred site of their own creation legend, and next year, they will be able to visit it for the first time in a century.
“People are holding their heads a little higher,” says Robert Elofson, the restoration program director for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. “We already take a great deal of pride in how successful we’ve been.” He’s not certain the salmon will return in big numbers until the gravel beds and native plants take root, and they will need time. But there’s reason to hope.
Every autumn, even today, a few salmon congregate in the pools at the foot of the Elwha Dam – relying upon their old instincts to fight upstream, and yearning to create a new chapter in the history of their river.
PS You can watch the first part of a documentary film about the Klallam people and the Elwha dams here, and a Seattle PBS item about the restoration project here.
UPDATE (August 8, 2012): Parts of the old Elwha Dam are gone, Lake Aldwell has been drained, and the Klallam people have gathered at their sacred creation site for the first time in nearly 100 years. Story and photos here.