The undamming and subsequent regeneration of the Elwha River, Olympic Peninsula, Washington, has revealed buried treasures. And shows that hope is a thing with fins. Excerpted from Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World. ©2023 by Steven Hawley. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.
The Return of the Elwha
Dam removals reveal buried treasures. Fish move quickly to reclaim habitat that was walled off from them, sometimes for centuries. Dissolved oxygen in free-flowing water breathes new life into the whole aquatic food chain, from benthic macroinvertebrates to beavers, otters, even wolves. The river’s banks, once recolonized by vegetation, become a habitat for birds and bugs. These have become standard forecast outcomes for a river renewed by dam removal. On the recently dam-free Elwha River in Washington, draining the Olympic Mountains in the damp northwest corner of the state, hope is a thing with fins.
Historically, the Elwha was among the region’s most prolific rivers, bearing ten varieties of anadromous salmon and steelhead. But in the early twentieth century, the river was dammed for hydropower. Though an 1890 state law required dams to have a passage for fish, the Elwha River dam had none, and blocked off some 90 percent of upstream spawning ground for hundreds of thousands of fish and decimated the Chinook salmon population. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who have fished the Elwha since time immemorial, were severely affected as the fish they depended on all but disappeared. But a decade after two dams were removed on the Elwha, the recovery is well underway.
The river is already in some ways defying expectations, and in the process, buoying the hopes of those who’ve come to love and depend on it. The first step in bringing salmon home to a place like the Elwha is re-establishing the habitat to which they have become accustomed over thousands of years of evolution.
Over a century, enough sediment had been trapped by the two dams on the Elwha River—located about a hundred miles west of Seattle—to fill the Seattle Seahawks’ football stadium to capacity eight times over with sand. Skeptics fretted that the load of muck would spoil restoration efforts. Casual observers rightly wondered what would happen when it all got uncorked. The work of deconstructing the dams took place from 2011 to 2014. By the time the river was running unimpeded, the Elwha had built itself a whole new estuary.
Where the Elwha runs into the saltwater, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a beachcomber’s delight of roughly a hundred acres of sand, gravel, driftwood, and river channel was laid down by the newly unfettered river. Out beneath the sea, beyond the hundred acres of new earth, a sub-sea-surface delta—formed from additional sediment—raised the seafloor bed six to fifteen feet in height. All told, the estuary is about three times larger than it was before the dams came out. To the east of the Elwha’s mouth, the positive effects of sediment returning to an ecosystem deprived of its river-born soil for a century are visible as far as the discerning eye can see.
Related content from ML:
A host of nearshore fishes, not seen in such diversity and abundance off the mouth of the Elwha since the Model T was a novelty, quickly colonized the estuary habitat. Surfers relish riding a now-regular break that used to be seen only once in a blue moon. Beavers appear to be making a comeback. Pools and channels sculpted by the push and pull of tide, wave, and river action are a haven for juvenile fish.
A host of nearshore fishes, not seen in such diversity and abundance off the mouth of the Elwha since the Model T was a novelty, quickly colonized the estuary habitat. Surfers relish riding a now-regular break that used to be seen only once in a blue moon.
Elwha’s newly expanded beach is accessed down a steep, winding two-lane road that dead-ends inside a neighborhood at the east end of Freshwater Bay. A sign says, “No overnight parking,” and there’s a porta-potty and a couple of trash cans, attesting to the spot’s growing popularity. As happens with any desirable location, the brand-new estuary is in some ways burdened from the fresh love it’s receiving. Dog shit has become a problem, and bonfires set amongst the prodigious supply of driftwood don’t help much either. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, in whose reserved lands the new delta lies, have closed part of the area so that recovery can proceed without compromise by too many visitors. Yet it’s hard to blame anyone for enthusiastic curiosity here.
On a bright weekday February morning, after a rare sea-level snowstorm the night before, I expect to see no one, but immediately get welcomed by a family and their rambunctious, slobbering chocolate lab. They depart in one of about a half-dozen cars parked in the neighborhood dead-end.
“This is nothing,” one of a trio of twenty-something men tells me as we pass on the path atop a low dike that accesses the beach. “When the surf is up, you won’t find a place to park anywhere near.” Without the crowd on a calm winter morning, the placid scene nonetheless makes a wild impression.
Scads of trees, branches, and sticks in various states of decomposition litter the vast beach and tempt even the most dull-witted beachcomber to try a hand at building some daringly creative structure out of the ample supply. The beach is full of such ad hoc sculptures, some tending toward teepee shape, others more wickiup, still more that look like cast-offs from some post-modern sculpture exhibit. Bisecting the beach is the sinuous flow of the Elwha, curving gracefully to meet saltwater in a braided channel that enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca at an oblique angle.
More about the book here.
Check the ML Podcast!