Sneak Peek at an Endangered River Success: The Elwha

On June 2 we will announce our 25th annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers™. As part of the report’s 25th anniversary, in addition to naming the ten endangered rivers for 2010, we will be featuring endangered river success stories. You’ll have to wait until next week to learn about all of the rivers, but I wanted to give you a sneak peek and share one success story with you in advance.

Washington’s Elwha River is a special place. It flows out of Olympic National Park into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is a relatively short and steep river, running fast and cold and clean through ancient forests where elk and other wildlife thrive. The only thing missing from the Elwha is the salmon. For one hundred years, two dams have blocked the river, preventing salmon from swimming upstream to spawn. I have stood on top of the first dam, just five miles from the river’s mouth, and have watched the salmon holding there, waiting. The dams have no fish passage. The river’s salmon populations are a fraction of what they once were, and the repercussions have been felt far and wide. The lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has been denied a key component of its culture, and traditional source of food. The web of life in Olympic National Park is suffering, because the forests no longer benefit from the ocean nutrients the salmon brought back when they returned to spawn. Even Puget Sound’s orca whales are feeling the impact of the depleted food source.

The dams are also a safety hazard. Elwha Dam failed once when it was under construction, flooding the Klallam reservation downstream. The dam still leaks today.

Because of the damage these outdated dams have inflicted, we named the Elwha one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers in 1992 and 1995. For years, American Rivers, the tribe, and our conservation partners have fought to tear down these dams. The effort to remove the dams and restore the river has run into many obstacles over the years, but now the end — or perhaps I should say beginning — is in sight.

Kicking off what will be one of the most important river restoration efforts in the country, dam removal will begin next year, opening a new chapter for the Elwha River, its salmon, and its people. We will all be watching this living laboratory to study how a river comes back to life. The interest and excitement has spread across the globe. I got a call yesterday from the representative of a delegation of Japanese river managers. They want to come visit the Elwha to learn more about dam removal.

The Elwha is no longer an endangered river. It is a river on the path to recovery. It is a success story, proving that when we shine the public spotlight on a threat, and when citizens take action, we can, quite simply, save a river.

That is why, for 25 years, we have published the America’s Most Endangered Rivers report. When we release the 2010 list of endangered rivers next week, please take action. With your help, we can turn those endangered rivers into success stories.