Overview - Elwha River Dams

The Elwha River drains an 831 square kilometer ecosystem on the north end of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. It is a wild and beautiful glacier fed stream which historically supported some of the most unique and diverse salmon runs on the west coast. It is the only river in Washington that is known to have once hosted large runs of all species of Pacific Salmon in its past. Particularly noteworthy was it runs of "June Hogs" - a genetically unique strain of giant chinook salmon, many of which ran up to 100 lbs. in size. They were among the largest chinook known to exist anywhere on earth. Today, most of these runs, including the June Hogs, are now extinct. This is almost entirely because of two dams which were constructed between 1910 and 1927. First was the Elwha Dam, built by the Olympic Power Company which did not even have a federally required license to do so.

Second was the Glines Canyon Dam, built by Northwest Power and Light. Both were eventually sold to Crown Zellerbach timber, who ever since, has been the sole benefactor of the dams' power supplies. Then, and now, state law required the dams to be constructed with fish passageways, yet both were deliberately, and illegally, constructed without them as cost saving measures. For largely political reasons, neither the fish passageway law nor the absence of a license for the Elwha Dam was enforced. Governmental pressure finally required Zellerback to construct a fish hatchery facility after Elwha salmon runs had decreased by over 75 percent in just a few years, but it was shut down within 5 years due to its failure to generate any productive returns (largely because of unregulated flow fluctuations and other dam related mortalities that offset any and all of the hatchery's productivity).

To this day only a few of the unique Elwha runs remain, and these are only the palest remnant of what was there at the beginning of the 20th century (in the early 90's, the chinook run in particular plummeted to as low as 700 fish). The native and non-native fisheries that were supported by the Elwha salmon runs have never recovered from their loss. For nearly 30 years, the Elwha tribe, whose way of life was all but destroyed and whose current reservation is subject to flooding due to direct flow releases and secondary dam effects, have been locked in seemingly endless battles with Zellerbach, along with State and federal regulatory agencies to get them to take action to restore at least some of the damage done. These actions have resulted in few successes.

Finally, in light of overwhelming scientific and economic evidence (as is nearly always the case with dams such as these), removal of both dams was approved by Congress in 1992 and they have since been purchased. However, funding for the actual removal project has not yet been fully allocated, in large part because of efforts by former Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) to block funding for the project by tying it to Snake River dam breaching proposals. Despite such stonewalling measures, the necessary funding is slowly accumulating from various sources, and the removal project is currently scheduled to begin within 4 years.

As with the Snake River dams in Eastern Washington, the scientific and economic case for the removal of these dams is conclusive. This April 1995 report from the Elwha Project Human Effects Team, which is composed of members of the Elwha Tribe, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation, examines the direct and proxy economic impacts of the removal of the dams. They show conclusively that there are significant economic gains to be had in addition to the restoration of salmon runs.


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