Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Elwha Project: Lessons for the Lower Snake River

Historic dam removal project sets important precedence for other rivers

By Pat Ford - Executive Director, Save our Wild Salmon

This Saturday, on September 17th, America celebrates a national achievement on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State:  removal of the two Elwha River dams. This is the largest dam removal project in the world, ever.  The Glines Canyon dam on the Elwha at 210 feet marks the highest dam ever removed as well.  Learn more about the Elwha project.

An exciting new video was released this week about the Elwha project by Andy Maser courtesy of American Rivers and American Whitewater:

Year of the River: Episode 1 from Andy Maser on Vimeo.

Elwha River restoration will restore one of the west coast’s legendary salmon rivers, which once produced five separate salmon species, including Chinook salmon up to 50 pounds (by some accounts, even up to 100 pounds).  It will restore a cultural and economic heritage for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, a vital food source for Puget Sound’s endangered orca whales, and a world-class scenic and recreational attraction.  River restoration is also creating hundreds of jobs, with more to come as salmon recover.  And, after years of conflict, restoration is occurring collaboratively, via agreements that provide replacement power for local businesses and additional community benefits.  Credit for this runs from local people, to Washington elected leaders, all the way to the White House and Congress. And the rewards will flow as widely.

The restoration has another dimension at well:  it will teach us scientific, engineering, economic, and community lessons we can apply to other rivers.  Every river is different, and therefore every river restoration proposal must be judged on its individual merits. The Elwha project is applying lessons from earlier dam removals, and similar learning will come from it.

Our coalition’s fishing, business and conservation groups support restoring the lower Snake River a few hundred miles east of the Elwha.  The Elwha project will offer lessons for the lower Snake River in many areas, but I’ll note three of importance -- salmon response, economic impact, and collaboration:

  • Wild salmon have responded quickly and positively to every major dam removal done so far on a salmon river; quick adaptability is in their DNA.  The Elwha will provide the best lessons yet in how fast various species respond.  This is important for the lower Snake, where five species of salmon and steelhead will be affected.
  • Local economic benefit to Tribal and non-Tribal communities was not a primary motivator behind the Elwha campaign, but it has become a critical and closely watched feature of the project.  While the rural areas around the lower Snake have different dynamics from the communities near the Elwha, the importance of jobs is just as critical.  
  • After much conflict over two decades, the Elwha project finally came together due to collaborations in which all parties got something important to their future.  No doubt a collaborative process for the lower Snake will look very different, but the same principles can be applied for the farmers, fishermen, energy users, communities, and businesses involved.

The recent U.S. District Court verdict found the government’s Columbia and Snake River salmon plan illegal for the third straight time.  It ordered a new and full evaluation of restoring the Lower Snake River by removing its four dams.  That official evaluation should apply relevant lessons from the Elwha.  But more important is the people’s evaluation – people on the west coast, and across America – that will occur at the same time.  We are confident people will apply the lessons and spirit of the Elwha achievement to the Snake River.  


Anonymous said...

I recall fishing out of Port Angeles for 3 years in the mid-1970's and hearing many stories of 100lb kings nort being uncommon at all.
Growing up in Petersburg, Alaska in the 1950's I was present when the current record fish came in from a salmon trap at Pt Colpys. I t weighed in at 126-3/4 lbs and I have heard of bigger ones back in the 20's and 30's.

Jon Tobey said...

How exactly is building a salmon hatchery and stocking non-local steelhead a win for wild fish? You should talk about the travesty of NOT letting the river heal, not bang the political drums of what a great thing this i.