Seeing the Elwha Restoration Begin

I just returned from an amazing, inspiring weekend, celebrating the removal of the Elwha River dams.  I wanted to share some of my experiences with you.

On Saturday, I was proud to attend the ceremony at Elwha Dam, emceed by actor and American Rivers board member Tom Skerritt.  If you missed the live stream of the ceremony on Saturday, you can watch it online.

The event included beautiful musical performances, and speeches from Chairwoman Frances Charles of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, Representative Norm Dicks, Governor Christine Gregoire, National Park Service Director John Jarvis, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Conner, and Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk.

Here is some video I shot of the water rushing through the one remaining open spillway and of the ceremonial removal of the first pieces of the dam

I now have a chunk of the Elwha Dam on my desk, to remind me of this historic achievement, and the work that still remains to restore other rivers across the country.

Long after I have forgotten the speeches, I will remember looking down from the top of the dam, to a pool below the now-dry spillway, where 73 salmon were circling, literally bumping against the foot of the dam. Here’s some video of what I saw. 

For nearly 100 years, since the dam was constructed in 1913, fish like these have returned to this spot, driven by the ancestral urge to keep moving upriver, but unable to do so because they are blocked by a wall of concrete over 100 feet high. 

The salmon have been waiting though, waiting for us to finally wise up and take down these dams.  We could all learn a thing or two about patience and persistence from these magnificent fish. And now, their wait is almost over. In three years, the Elwha will again be free and the salmon and steelhead will return to a river restored. 

We had a preview of that future on Friday when our staff and board of directors visited a stretch of the Elwha downstream of the dams. There, we witnessed Chinook salmon spawning in the riffles, completing the cycle that began several years before, when they hatched in the Elwha, made the journey downstream to the Pacific, and finally returned to the same river to spawn and die. See a video I took of the salmon spawning

While we were seeing a few dozen salmon, someday there will again be hundreds of thousands of salmon spawning in the Elwha, marking the rebirth of the river, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, and all who enjoy and care about rivers.