Elwha River: (Re)Born to be wild

US National Park Service
Map of the Elwha River and tributaries with dams.

Flowing from the heart of Washington’s Olympic National Park, the Elwha River is a sacred site. The creation story of the Lower Elwha Klallam people originates in the river’s fertile valley just east of Mt. Olympus, despite attempts to drown the Elwha behind a pair of towering dams a century ago. But the river once best known for its dams now serves as the home of America’s greatest re-creation story.

“The Elwha provides the most high-profile proof that dam removal works,” says Bob Irvin, president of conservation organization American Rivers. “On the Elwha, we are witnessing on a grand scale that rivers can come back to life if we just give them a chance.”

Claiming title to the largest dam removal project in history, the Elwha has once again run wild since August 26, 2014. The results have been astounding. Salmon runs at one time estimated at 400,000 fish annually are on track to surpass that number within the next 30 years. Bears, cougars, bobcats, mink, otter, and other wildlife sustained by the renewed food source have increased in abundance. Native plants are reclaiming riverbanks and silt and sand are moving downstream to rebuild the beach at the river’s mouth. It’s a living case study in the recovery and restoration of a wild river.

The Backstory

The Elwha Dam stood 108 feet tall when it was built in 1913 just five miles from the river’s mouth in Puget Sound. It completely blocked robust runs of five different species of Pacific salmon from their native spawning habitat, stressing the ecosystem and obliterating tribal sustenance fishing. The 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam, built 14 years later, further obstructed the river and fish passage in what is now Olympic National Park.

After decades of work, sparked by a challenge to the relicensing of a hydropower dam within a national park, a coalition including the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, American Rivers and other partners finally succeeded in authorizing dam removal and securing federal funding for the Elwha River restoration project in 1992. Elwha Dam removal began in September 2011, and the river was fully reconnected with the final blast to the Glines Canyon Dam in August 2014.

The Future

The Elwha is a story of a river returning to life. From its 6,000-foot headwaters in Olympic National Park to its mouth at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the river once again flows freely from source to sea, with the rare benefit of being almost completely protected by park boundaries. Revegetation efforts throughout the formerly flooded valleys are ongoing, with park botanists and volunteers planting more than more than 400,000 native plants in the newly exposed sediment. What happens next, however, is up to Mother Nature.

But the immediate ecological and cultural benefits are undeniable. Local tribes and visiting anglers alike may once again thrive on the natural bounty of migrating fish. Now reconnected, the ecosystem is repairing itself, from the riparian old-growth forests reaping nutritional benefits from decomposing fish right down to orca whales thriving off a regenerating food source. With reestablished river flows, boaters, hikers, and other visitors are rediscovering the lush forests, deep valleys, and mountain views surrounding the Elwha River.

More than 100 years of dams does, however, take a toll on a river. Scientists say it could take a generation or more for the Elwha to fully heal. But it makes for compelling theater as the world watches a rare river rebirth. If there’s a better comeback story in American river restoration, we’re still waiting to hear it.