Thursday, October 20, 2011

In the Northwest, dams are falling (but the sky is not)

While dams across the country are being removed to restore healthier, free-flowing rivers, in many ways the Northwest - and especially Washington and Oregon - has become the epicenter for the movement these days.

These historic projects are restoring healthy rivers, recovering fish populations, providing increased fishing opportunities, and creating much-needed jobs.  Our partners at American Rivers have rightly dubbed 2011 The Year of the River.

September on the Elwha

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

Amid much well deserved fanfare last month, the restoration of the Elwha River – previously throttled by two gigantic concrete walls for 100 years - began with massive jackhammers and backhoes. The removal of America's largest dams yet will require about 2.5 years to complete. During its pre-dam glory, the Elwha River drainage was a premier salmon and steelhead river - home to more 400,000 fish each year, including 100-pound chinook as well as chum, sockeye, coho, pinks, and steelhead. Restoring this river is expected to generate over time the greatest salmon restoration this country has yet seen, and with it, hundreds of jobs.

While there are some emerging debates and disagreements about techniques being used to restore salmon and steelhead populations, such as the sources of fish being used to repopulate the basin and whether the use of hatcheries in this case is a wise choice, Save Our Wild Salmon is excited about this project and the fact that we have progressed to the point where we are now having these types of debates, about how we will recover fish in the newly-restored river.

October on the White Salmon

Year of the River: Episode 2 from Andy Maser on Vimeo.

Following quickly on the heels the Elwha River Project is the removal of Condit Dam and restoration of the White Salmon River, a tributary of the Columbia River in southwest Washington. On October 26, contractors will blast a hole in the dam's concrete base and drain the 92-acre reservoir in just six hours. The torrent will snake 3.3 miles downstream to the Columbia River, taking with it millions of cubic yards of sediment that have settled behind the dam over the past 98 years.

While Elwha River restoration is slow-going, a free-flowing White Salmon River will occur literally overnight, though the full removal of the dam is expected to take months, and washing out the load of sediments downstream from the dam site could potentially take a couple of years.

White Salmon Fall Chinook salmon were recently trapped downstream and transported above the dams into habitat they have not visited in nearly a century. They are already making nests and kick-starting the re-colonization process.

What this means for the Snake River 

Neither the White Salmon nor the Elwha River restoration projects were easy to pass or move forward. They are the result of years of hard work, collaborative effort, and scientific review. They are the result of strong leadership and legal process, bolstering regional economies and ecosystems.  While every river restoration project is different, lessons learned from the Elwha and Condit dam removal projects will be important in future policy decisions for other projects, such as on the Snake River.

Regardless of their differences, all these river restoration projects have similar traits in common: it costs more to leave these outdated, obsolete dams in place than it does to remove them. As we measure the salmon returning and the economic impact these projects have, we can look forward to future successful restoration projects. And know that it can be done. 

For recent coverage on the Elwha and White Salmon River Restoration efforts:

(1) Seattle Times: Elwha River Restoration video

(2) Elwha River Restoration Webcams.

(3) White Salmon River Restored  a timelapse project from filmmaker Andy Maser.

(4) Yakima-Herald Republic: Run Free, White Salmon

Thanks to Andy Maser Films for the awesome videos! 

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