The Elwha: Fighting for laissez-faire recovery

It’s more than a fish story. I get that. But if the point of breaching the Elwha dams is to restore the ecosystem, and wild salmon and steelhead are the keystone species of that system, then it is, ultimately, a fish story.

People spoke of ‘the chrome tide’ to describe the bounty of the Elwha, a coastal watershed in Washington with fish runs cresting at 400,000 annually. Fifty-pound Chinook were common and the trophies tipped the 100-pound mark. More than a hundred years ago, construction began on the first of two illegal dams providing cheap power but no fish passage. There wasn’t even high demand for kilowatts. Private developers took the “build it and they will come” approach to economic development in this sleepy corner of the world, the Olympic Peninsula. Fish runs crashed. The graph of wild-fish returns looks like many others with a line traveling asymptotically towards zilch. Now, the chrome tide is nothing more than a beautiful anachronism.

Elwha Dam, the first barrier to anadramous fish seeking spawning gravel, is now completely gone. The 105-ft. structure sat a mere five miles up the Elwha’s mainstem from the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  A few more miles upriver, Glines Canyon Dam, twice as tall at 210 ft., has been reduced by a third, as a hydraulic hammer chips away at the slow pace of 18 inches a day. (Any faster than that and sediment loads would overwhelm the river.) Perhaps as early as next year, that second impasse will be history and the Elwha will flow freely from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains.

Will the storied Chinook return? Or other wild fish: steelhead trout and the four other species of Pacific salmon? Experts say yes. Eighty three percent of the Elwha watershed lies within Olympic National Park, which translates into an unprecedented shot at bona fide restoration.

But Mother Nature needs time to heal anthropogenic wounds. Meanwhile, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe wants a hatchery to provide during the barren period of restoration. The problem with stocking a river with hatchery brats is that they sometimes mate with wild fish, a phenomenon called introgression, resulting in weak offspring, genetically inferior to the progeny of a purely wild pairing.

“But all hatchery fish are sterile,” a friend of mine argued not long ago.

No, they are not. They lack an adipose fin, not sex organs. Science has proven that hatchery fish are harmful to wild stocks, especially those in recovery. But in this case, as in many others, science takes a back seat to politics.

Last fall, several conservation groups including the Wild Steelhead Coalition (disclaimer: I am a member) sued over a $16 million, federally-funded hatchery for violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“The intention of taking out the dams was to restore a wild river with wild fish,” notes Rich Simms, president of Wild Steelhead Coalition. “That was the intention and that was the message. Evidently, that wasn’t the route taken.”

Non-native steelhead from the hatchery, currently operating, would be swimming in the Elwha and its tributaries already. But WSC, among other conservation groups, and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe reached an agreement in February to delay plants of  those controversial steelhead for a year. The wheels of litigation continue to turn slowly in this suit potentially pitting science and the Endangered Species Act against Native American treaty rights.

Simms remains sanguine and points out “there is common ground” between the two sides. He won’t tip his hand on litigation strategy or settlement expectations, but voices optimism about “a collaborative plan in the interest of everyone.”

In the United States, we have already taken down more than 900 dams, according to data published by advocacy group American Rivers. But none of those presented the opportunity we have before us: to watch a wounded river heal itself; to see real, native fish runs flourish; to see the chrome tide return. We have a great educational opportunity and can apply lessons learned from this to future dam removal efforts. The vast majority of the Elwha watershed’s 321 square miles lies protected in a national park, unfettered by urban development.

Planning for the Elwha dams removal started more than 20 years ago, Simms explains, adding that many people worked long and hard for the promise of “restoring a wild river with wild fish.”

“The public was duped and sold a bill of good of a federally-funded production hatchery with tax payer dollars,” said the WSC leader.

The concept of spending $325 million on Elwha dam demolition is absurd if we continue to exploit artificial propagation. It’s glorified, overpriced aquaculture. We let the river return to its natural state but fill it with unnatural stock scientifically proven to harm wild fish recovery. Common sense, when it comes to public policy, is going the way of our wild salmon and steelhead.


2 responses to “The Elwha: Fighting for laissez-faire recovery

  1. Nice piece Nancy. You should forward this to the Times or maybe WTA. Well done my friend!

  2. Instant fish gratification be damned (or undammed in this case).

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