Could it be said that the Elwha River has become the celebrity figurehead of the growing trend of dam removal in the United States? And if not, should it be? Since dam removal efforts began just over 3 years ago, the Elwha has show the world much of what can happen -- and happen quickly -- when impediments in a river are removed. The images have been dramatic, not only at the two dam removal sites, but all the way to the mouth of the Elwha where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Most recently, Olympic National Park officials released information which indicates that the river is seeing the largest run of chinook salmon in over two decades.
According to park officials, "biologists representing Olympic National Park, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, U.S. Geological Survey, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and NOAA Fisheries navigated over 13 miles of the Elwha River and tributaries with the goal of counting all the living and dead adult Chinook and map the spawning salmon's redds. Biologists walked and snorkeled the river from Glines Canyon Dam to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, as well as the lower portions of three of the river's tributaries - Indian Creek, Hughes Creek, and Little River." Park officials noted that the returns were "the largest run of Chinook salmon since 1992".
Perhaps more important is the fact that the results of the survey revealed more than just numbers. In addition revealing the Elwha's largest chinook runs in over 20 years, investigators also found that the chinook were "readily moving into stretches of the river and its tributaries formerly blocked by the Elwha Dam." And, "readily" might not quite describe their findings accurately. 763 redds were observed between the remnants of Glines Canyon Dam and the Elwha's mouth. Of those 763 redds, over 77 percent were observed upstream of the former Elwha Dam site.
Matt Stoecker of Stoecker Ecological and one of the filmmakers of the upcoming documentary DamNation, noted "watching how quickly the Elwha River has come back to life following dam removal has been truly inspiring, but not surprising. One year after swimming with chinook that were banging their heads against Elwha Dam, we returned to watch them launching through the air and swimming right through the bedrock gorge where the dam once stood. The Elwha, Rogue, White Salmon, Kennebec, Penobscot, and other recently freed rivers show that wild salmon, steelhead, and other migratory fish quickly return upstream when we get out of the way."
Dam removal efforts are still underway at the Glines Canyon Dam site. After delays in 2013, according to Olympic Park officials, dam removal efforts at the Glines Canyon Dam are "back on track" and scheduled for completion in 2014. When completed, over 70 miles of unaltered river will -- for the first time in over a century -- be open to Elwha salmon and steelhead.