Historically famous for the size and diversity of its salmon runs, the Elwha was a formerly free-flowing, then dammed, and now free-flowing river once more. Today, the Elwha is famous for the decommissioning and removal of both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. These projects are arguably the biggest success story in Washington State and have freed more than 70 miles of mainstream and tributary habitat for salmon to use once again. Restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem, including the estuary habitat at the mouth of the river, will remain an ongoing process to ensure that this river is fully restored and hospitable for inbound and outbound salmon.
The Elwha River headwaters originate in Olympic National Park, just southeast of Mount Olympus. The river flows north for roughly 45 miles, reaching the Strait of Juan de Fuca due west of Port Angeles, Washington. The Elwha, formerly free-flowing, dammed in the early 1900s, and now free-flowing once more, was historically famous for the size and diversity of the salmon runs found there. It is estimated that this river produced 380,000 migrating salmon and trout and supported all five species of Pacific Northwest salmon. According to the National Park Service, Chinook exceeding 100 pounds were found in the Elwha. Those 100 pound Chinook salmon were the norm for Southern Resident orcas, and these sizes meant that each orca would only need a few of these fish a day, to survive.
In the early 1900s, two dams were constructed as hydroelectric energy sources to aid in growing the city of Port Angeles and the logging industry this city depended on. And though these energy sources helped fuel the local economy in the first half of the century, without fish passage and accumulating sediment blockages upriver, salmon were left with a mere 5 miles of deteriorated riverbanks for spawning purposes. By the 1980s salmon populations were threatened across the entire
Pacific Northwest, and after several years of politics, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992. This Act gave authority to the Secretary of the Interior over the dams along with implementing the actions necessary to fully restore the Elwha River. Decommissioning and removal plans began to materialize.
Today, the Elwha has made history by being the largest dam removal project in the United States, which is also arguably one of the biggest success stories in Washington. After two decades of planning, the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were removed in 2011 and 2014, opening 70 miles of mainstream and tributary habitat for spawning salmon. All but 5 of those miles, near the mouth, had been blocked for almost a century. Scientists have reported that the most dramatic impact of removal of the dams has been the recreation of the estuary at the river mouth, providing new habitat for salmon, forage fish, and other species. Salmon have been documented in areas of the Elwha that they have not had access to in 100 years, which is also another wonderful sign. Given more time, it appears that salmon can make a recovery post-dam removal.
Resources: Lessons From the World’s Largest Dam-Removal Project at the Elwha River (adventure-journal.com) | History of the Elwha - Olympic National Park (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov) | Elwha River | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov)