By Jessica Plumb
Feature photo of Glines Canyon Dam reservoir by Jessica Plumb
In September 2011, I stood on a river overlook with children from my daughter’s elementary school, all of us transfixed as a giant jackhammer turned cement to rubble. Below us, a waterfall raged through the first notch in the Lower Elwha dam, as blows fell against remaining ramparts.
No-one above the crumbling dam was old enough to remember when this river last ran free, a century earlier. That field trip would commit me to a four-year journey in documentary filmmaking, chronicling the largest dam removal on earth to date, an unprecedented project in river restoration.
Fast forward to spring 2020, Memorial Day weekend. A low mist hangs over the Elwha valley. In six years since the completion of dam removal, the river has carved through the access road that once led to the Glines Canyon Dam, creating a new channel and marooning a former campground on an unreachable island.
Returning to Glines Canyon with my teenage daughter involves a hike around two washouts, and a trek up the road we once drove. Spring snowmelt courses over remains of the road in a low-lying stretch. As we leave the washout zone and head up the valley, a bobcat slinks across the cracking pavement into a forest of bigleaf maple.
Our family returns frequently to the Elwha valley, and every time the landscape feels new. Removing two dams restored a connection between land and sea, unleashing transformation throughout the watershed.
Each autumn we visit to watch salmon return to a river that fell silent for 100 years. Fish numbers have increased steadily since barriers came down, and the iconic Elwha Chinook now number over 7,000 adults. Mike McHenry, fisheries biologist at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, says that 2019 numbers suggest a fivefold increase for juvenile Chinook, the first “strong signal” for natural Chinook production in newly available habitat. In the first few years after the dams were removed, turbid water and rapidly shifting channels posed a challenge for returning fish, he notes. But recent river conditions have begun to stabilize.
The Elwha was once famous for these Chinook; a century ago tribal fishermen reported 100-pound salmon. Yet the Kings of the Elwha are one among ten anadromous fish species making a comeback in the watershed.
Biologists are intrigued by a surge of summer steelhead in the upper Elwha valley. True to their name, steelhead ventured furthest upriver past former dam sites, 37 miles upstream. Scientists are wondering whether the steelhead boom represents a reawakening of anadromy in genetically similar trout species – essentially a change in life strategy spurred by dam removal.
Fish recovery may be the headline story of the Elwha’s rapid transformation, but in May, we are drawn to the valley for a different annual ritual: flowers rather than fish. As dam removal shifted from a “crazy idea” to an imminent reality, revegetation specialists planned for the moment when water would drain away from two reservoirs, exposing land buried for a century. An estimated 24 million cubic yards of sediment had collected behind the dams, creating a challenge for ecologists who hoped to jumpstart the process of plant succession. Their goal was to outrace invasive plant species in 800 acres laid bare by dewatering, and to set the stage for a future forest.
Crews began to collect seeds from the Elwha valley long before the dams came down, propagating native plants in green houses by the thousands. Joshua Chenoweth led the Elwha revegetation plan, dizzying in its scope. Volunteers would plant over 300,000 starts, while crews scattered tons of natively sourced seed. As dam removal approached, Chenoweth added one last seed species to his list — river lupine, known for nitrogen fixing capacity, although it was hard to source in sufficient quantities in the Elwha valley.
This May we smell the lupine before we see them, as we push through a dense thicket of cottonwood and willow saplings. The hike into Glines reservoir begins at an abandoned boat ramp with a trail descending into a young forest where kayaks once launched. The sweet scent is overpowering as the path levels into the lakebed, leading us into a sea of purple lupine.
From Chenoweth’s perspective, the Elwha revegetation effort has been an overwhelming success. Last fall he left for the Klamath River, to help the Yurok Tribe plan for the removal of four dams on the Klamath.
Rivers are the thread between two worlds, and damming a river severs that connection in both directions. When the Elwha dams were built without provisions for fish passage, breaking one of the earliest environmental laws written in Washington State, their most immediate impact was to create a barrier for anadromous fish. Migrating fish are the keystone of this ecosystem, weaving fresh and saltwater worlds together. As the river’s salmon disappeared, the watershed began to change in more subtle ways.
Upstream in the flood plains, fish went missing from the whisper of trees, changing the inner workings of the forest. When salmon return to their natal streams, they transport marine derived nutrients deep inland, feeding not only wildlife but towering western red cedar and Douglas fir. Science has shown the presence of marine derived nutrients in the tissue of trees near salmon streams. When fish come home to spawn, they are followed by wildlife, from bear to eagles, who help distribute their carcasses. Salmon provide food for dozens of animal species, while fertilizing lowland forests.
Downstream, the estuary and nearshore habitat transformed as the dams trapped decade after decade of sediment. Rivers move mountains to the sea; on a dammed river this sediment collects where water slows, filling reservoirs with gravel. Elders at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe remember harvesting shellfish from sandbars near the river’s mouth. By the time dam removal began in 2011, this estuary habitat was long gone, replaced by a landscape of large cobblestones.
The rewilding of the Elwha is a story of environmental justice and cultural restoration, equal in scope to the scale of the science experiment. When dams were built on the river, they transformed not only an ecosystem, but the way of life of people who depended most closely on it.
Salmon are at the heart of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s culture and economy, and tribal members were the first to protest the transformation of the river. As water rose behind the first dam, the reservoir inundated a site sacred to the tribe, believed to be the birthplace of the Klallam people. When the lower reservoir drained away, tribal members rediscovered the sacred place they had lost a century earlier, kept alive in memory. The tribe is working with Olympic National Park and other agencies to document the salmon recovery process, a dream held for generations.
Perhaps the most astonishing element of this restoration experiment is how quickly ecosystem changes can be reversed. When sediment began to flow downstream, sand bars grew rapidly at the river’s mouth, stretching into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. For the first time in a century, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe began gaining, rather than losing reservation land on the East side of the estuary. With the return of sandbars came creatures who live in this habitat, from clams to Dungeness crab.
As geologists tracked the changing landscape, they began to observe an unexpected benefit of dam removal: new sand deposits were helping to buffer the shoreline against the impact of sea level rise.
Scientists are tracking wildlife associated with migrating fish. One study considered American dippers, our continent’s only aquatic songbird. As salmon returned to the Elwha, these charismatic little birds were shown to have marine derived nutrients in their diet, which in turn made them more likely to take up residence in the Elwha valley, and to double brood in a single season.
Equally encouraging data emerged from the study of river otters, who were among the first to chase returning salmon upstream.
2021 will mark a decade since dam removal began in the Elwha valley, a time to take stock. The initial results of this unprecedented experiment are breathtaking in speed and scope. Before dam removal, first time visitors to the Elwha valley perceived a place that was wild in many ways, particularly in the national park, even though the beating heart of the valley was stilled. Those who knew the river intimately saw something different: a dying river, holding out for a miracle.
Today life pulses throughout the watershed — from the surge of returning fish to the hum of terrestrial activity in former reservoirs. Beneath the roar of canyons is a steady whisper: all is connected. For a river and its people, this connectivity means life.