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Restoring the Elwha River Could
Change Public Thinking about America's Rivers

by Elizabeth Grossman, Guest Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - December 12, 2004

"a challenge to dam owners and operators to -- demonstrate by hard facts, not by sentiment or myth,
that the continued operation of a dam is in the public interest, economically and environmentally."
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, at Edwards Dam removal from Maine's Kennebec River, 1999

In August, the city of Port Angeles, the Lower Klallam Elwha Tribe and the National Park Service signed an agreement that put in motion one of the most revolutionary river restoration projects ever undertaken -- removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams from the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula.

Dismantling the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam will make these the largest dams ever removed. This audacious restoration effort is more than 20 years in the making and, if all goes on schedule, the Elwha River will run free and salmon will -- sometime in 2010 -- have access to the whole river for the first time in nearly a century.

More than 250 dams have been removed in the United States in the last 20 years -- more than 100 of these since the end of 2000 -- but the Elwha River dams are the first to be acquired by the federal government expressly for the purpose of decommissioning, removal and restoring wild salmon.

In stark contrast to what's happening on the Elwha comes the Bush administration's Nov. 30 announcement of its latest plans for threatened and endangered Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead. The plans eliminate any possibility of Columbia and Snake River dam removal, declaring such action outside the scope of what the federal agencies can consider.

Further, the administration said it would reduce by more than 80 percent the area designated "critical habitat" -- a requirement of the Endangered Species Act -- restricting such protection for these fish to include places only where the fish are now found, not where they used to live. Both decisions indicate an apparent lack of vision and understanding of river restoration as it's been playing out around the country.

Before completion of the Elwha Dam in 1912 and the Glines Canyon Dam in 1927, the Elwha was one of the most productive salmon rivers of its size in the region. From its Olympic Mountains headwaters to where it meets the ocean at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Elwha nurtured prolific runs of chinook, chum, coho and sockeye salmon and steelhead and cutthroat trout.

The dams, which are wedged in steep canyons, were built without fish passage and block migration of the Elwha's anadromous fish. Today, the river's fish runs are only about 1 percent of what they were historically. Yet with its unique topography and geography -- and the fact that most of the river lies within Olympic National Park and is relatively untouched by development other than the dams, and that fish still flock to the lower river -- the Elwha is considered one of the best places for what is hoped will be a significant recovery of the Pacific Northwest's wild salmon.

The Elwha restoration -- like other imperiled species recovery efforts that are proving successful -- aims to return a threatened species to habitat it once occupied and without which it cannot thrive. Where dams have degraded river conditions, restoring habitat often means rethinking those dams, no matter how permanent a part of the landscape they seem.

Since the earliest days of colonial settlement, Americans have put their rivers to work. The Army Corps of Engineers counts about 75,000 dams on its National Inventory of Dams. That means we have been building almost one dam a day, every day since the Declaration of Independence. But the nation's dam building peaked in the 1970s, and since 1998, the rate of decommissioning dams in the United States has overtaken the rate of construction. Dams have been removed and removals planned in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Today, barely two or three generations after construction of the nation's largest dams the cost of this extraordinary engineering is acutely apparent. In some rivers, dams have pushed to the brink of extinction species of fish once so numerous they drove entire economies. In others, dams have altered water conditions in ways that allow invasive exotics to threaten native species. Changing river and climate conditions have rendered some dams ineffective. Many aging dams have fallen into disrepair and become safety hazards. Many cost more to operate and maintain than they generate in revenue. In November 2000, the World Commission on Dams -- an international consortium of governments, non-governmental organizations and businesses -- published a report questioning whether large dams, given their long-term ecological, financial and human costs, are the best tool for managing the world's most valuable resource, its water.

We have learned, from their loss, the many benefits of healthy and free-flowing rivers. Over the past 20 years or so, largely since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, rivers all across the country have begun to enjoy a renaissance as people recognize the ecological importance of, take pride in and work to reclaim their waterways.

As part of these efforts, communities from Maine to Florida and the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest are scrutinizing the efficacy of their dams. With comprehensive analyses of ecology, economics, energy efficiency, water conservation and public health and safety, they are identifying marginal and abandoned dams and questioning the relicensing of dams whose environmental and social impacts are too costly. That is precisely what happened on the Elwha.

The Elwha dams were built solely to generate hydropower for Port Angeles lumber mills. Today, only the Daishowa America Mill in Port Angeles uses power from the Elwha dams, which generate less than half the mill's power supply. While negotiating new licenses for the Elwha dams, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and General Accounting Office found that improvements needed to make the dams meet current safety and environmental standards would equal or exceed the cost of obtaining the power elsewhere. They also concluded that the Elwha's salmon runs -- if they could be restored -- would be worth more than the power the dams would produce.

Salmon numbers have been too low in recent years for any harvest of Elwha River fish. The 1855 treaties between the Northwest tribes and the U.S. government guarantee the tribes the right to fish in their accustomed places in perpetuity, but disappearance of the Elwha salmon runs has made this impossible for the Lower Klallam Elwha. "We had a birthright taken away -- we will not do any fishing until the numbers return," a tribal leader told me in 2000.

Where dams have come out, rivers' natural conditions and native fish runs have begun to return, often with astonishing alacrity. Thanks to dam removal, fish runs are rebounding in rivers in Wisconsin, California, North Carolina and Maine -- to name but a few. Many of these communities approached dam removal with skepticism or outright opposition but are now enjoying the enhancements the restored rivers bring to the local quality of life. If the Elwha dam removals succeed, they will provide an extraordinarily strong example of what a powerful restoration tool dam removal can be.

The Elwha River restoration plan is the product of arduous negotiations among government agencies, private industry, Native American tribes and conservation groups. That these dam removals are now scheduled, and funding available for the necessary complex engineering, is a triumph for science and holistic economics. When the first operating hydroelectric dam in the nation -- Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River -- was removed in 1999, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt called the occasion "a challenge to dam owners and operators to -- demonstrate by hard facts, not by sentiment or myth, that the continued operation of a dam is in the public interest, economically and environmentally."

These words are worth remembering in light of the Bush administration's stance on Columbia and Snake River salmon and its recently proposed changes to dam licensing and operating procedures that would give dam owners the exclusive right to appeal an Interior Department ruling on dam operation and prevent tribes, conservation groups, states and citizens from having an equal opportunity to make their claims. If approved, the rule would give industry preferential treatment and could well politicize a process now designed to give equal consideration to the economic and environmental concerns of all interested parties -- creating roadblocks to the restoration of rivers large and small.

The history of this country is inextricable from the history of its rivers. And too much of this country now depends on our manipulation of rivers for these water projects to be entirely undone. We cannot turn back the clock, but we can try to learn from the damage, to repair some of the fragmentation and attempt to make decisions for the long rather than short term. Restoration of the Elwha represents a watershed in public thinking about America's rivers. It may well be the kind of thinking on which the future health of this country's environment will depend.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of "Watershed: The Undamming of America and Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail." She writes from Portland.
Restoring the Elwha River Could Change Public Thinking about America's Rivers
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 2004

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