Largest dam removal project in US history nears completion
Focus turns to salmon restoration strategies, with a clash of visions…Posted May 17, 2012
For the first time in over a century, newly hatched salmon fry are swimming in a stretch of the Elwha River formerly blocked to salmon runs by the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. These small Coho fry represent a large success in the effort to restore rivers to their natural flow.
But the salmon fry are offspring of hatchery fish introduced to the river last fall by Park officials, and this has some stewardship groups concerned that populating the river with introduced fish may threaten the re-establishment of wild salmon and steelhead trout species.
The Elwha Dam, a 108’ concrete fixture on the Elwha River since 1913, is gone. The final sections were removed last month, and a riparian restoration project is underway to re-establish native riverine vegetation. The Glines Canyon Dam, a 210’ behemoth nine miles upstream, is largely chipped away, and scheduled to vanish in 12 – 18 months. This historic dam removal project sets a precedent for river restoration which has generated enthusiasm for similar projects across the country.
The Elwha River dam removals are part of a $325 million federally-funded project to restore nearly ninety miles of pristine riverine habitat in the Olympic National Park wilderness area, once home to a population of more than 300,000 salmon.
The effort to restore traditional fish populations in sections of the river blocked by the dams has already begun. Last October, park officials released 600 Coho or king pink salmon into the Elwha River as one of the first steps in an ambitious hatchery program. In the past few weeks, hundreds of small Coho fry were counted from nests in the river above the former Elwha Dam.
“They’re surviving. They’re hatching. They’re coming out well,” said Rob Elofson, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s fisheries restoration director.
Olympic National Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes projected a bounty of 400,000 salmon during the next three decades.
But the introduction of hatchery fish to the newly available river habitat is contentious. The current plan to release approximately four million juvenile hatchery salmonids annually, accompanied by a five-year fishing moratorium, has come under criticism from environmental groups who claim the plan will hamper wild salmonids from naturally colonizing this pristine habitat.
Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle argue that without supplementation with hatchery fish, wild stocks won’t be able to re-establish themselves.
Four conservation groups have filed suit recently against several federal agencies and officials of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe for violating the Endangered Species Act by threatening the recovery of killer whales, Chinook salmon, and native steelhead by funding and operating fish hatchery programs in the Elwha River. According to the suit, the current plan gives no measureable goals for wild fish recovery, provides no timetable for ceasing the hatchery production, and that ultimately, wild fish recovery will be hampered by the hatchery fish. A review released last week by the independent Hatchery Scientific Review Group, which was organized and funded by Congress, has echoed these concerns.
Similar dam demolitions and river restoration projects are under consideration across the nation. Four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington State are under federal review for possible demolition. Dam removal plans in Maine and California are also in the planning stages.
Although the fish reintroduction plans are still a matter of debate, information gathered from the Elwha restoration activities in the years ahead will provide more conclusive information for future restoration projects. For now, we should celebrate the remarkable achievement of applying so much money and effort to restoring the natural habitat of one of the nation’s great rivers.