On the Elwha, a New Life When the Dam Breaks

A huge dam-removal project will reveal sacred Native American lands that have been flooded for a century

Two antique dams on Washington state's Elwha River are set to be demolished. (Brian Smale)

The nation’s largest and most ambitious dam removal will begin this month, when workers start demolishing two antique dams on Washington state’s Elwha River. The Elwha has been cut off from its source in the Olympic Mountains for almost a century, and its once rich salmon runs have dwindled to practically nothing.

The dams will be notched down gradually, over three years, and it will take even longer for fish to return in force. Yet the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, whose culture is rooted in the river, already feels the project’s impact. I visited the watershed before demolition began, as some of the tribe’s youngest members awaited the river’s transformation.

Several dozen middle schoolers raced to their picnic spot on the weedy banks of the Lake Aldwell reservoir, one of two dammed segments of the Elwha River. It was the first day of a week long camping trip, and already their counselors, lugging tubs of peanut butter, looked a bit exhausted. The campers’ happy shrieks echoed in the cedar trees.

Yet when tribal elder Monica Charles put aside her cane and sat down near the water’s edge to tell stories, the kids grew quiet.

Tucking long gray hair behind her ears, Charles told the children that they were sacred beings, which made some of the boys blush. She reminded them of their eternal ties to their tribe, and said that no matter where their paths in life led, they each had a special duty to perform for their people. She compared them to the Pacific salmon native to the Elwha, which swim out to sea as juveniles but return to home waters as adults.

“There’s an instinct in the young salmon that makes them go downriver,” she explained. “They go down waterfalls and through the white-water. They go out to the ocean to see the world.

“But they don’t get lost. And they always find their way back.”

Except that the Elwha’s salmon haven’t really been back for a century now. The river—most of which is inside Olympic National Park—once shimmered with tens of thousands of the fish, but thanks to the dams and related environmental problems, only a tiny percentage of the historic wild runs endure. Blocked from their upriver spawning habitat, a few determined salmon still gather at the base of the lower dam every year during spawning season.

Scientists are on hand as the first pieces of the dam are about to be removed. They will monitor the river valley’s renaissance and the return of the fish. They have carefully modeled how the plume of sediment trapped behind the dams will travel downriver and empty into the salt water of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The effect on people, though, is harder to predict. In anticipation of the dam’s removal, the Elwha Science Education Project, hosted by the Olympic Park Institute (OPI), a local environmental group, is holding camps and field trips to reconnect Elwha children, as well as some from other local tribes, with the watershed that was once the Elwhas’ world. The hope is to send kids from the tribe—which has low high-school graduation rates—to college, with the ultimate goal of having them return home to the Olympic Peninsula to work, perhaps even as scientists studying the transitioning watershed.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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