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In Washington, Demolishing Two Dams So That the Salmon May Go Home

A ceremony held September 17 marked the beginning of demolition of the 108-foot Elwha and 210-foot Glines dams, the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.

LOWER ELWHA KLALLAM, Washington—The dams' days are numbered, and for a dwindling population of salmon cut off from their historical habitat for a century, it's better late than never.

A ceremony held September 17 marked the beginning of demolition of the 108-foot Elwha and 210-foot Glines dams, the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Actor and river advocate Tom Skeritt led an impressive lineup of speakers that included Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Gov. Chris Gregoire, Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, Lower Elwha Klallam Chairwoman Frances Charles, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor, local congressman Norm Dicks, BIA Director Larry EchoHawk, and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

Their remarks were delivered within view of the Elwha Dam even as an estimated 73 king salmon, also known as Chinook, swam in a pool at the dam's base, cut off from more than 70 miles of upstream spawning and rearing habitat. The salmon have butted heads with Elwha since its construction in 1912 (Glines was built in 1926); in that time, their runs have plummeted from 300,000 pre-dam to 3,000 today.

The scene at the base of the dam Sept. 17 seemed to underscore every story, every elder's account of the salmon’s struggle to survive, every urgent call for the dams to come down.

“The salmon are still trying to find their way home,” said Al Charles Sr., who was on the Lower Elwha Klallam council when the 1992 Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was approved by Congress.

King salmon return from sea to spawn on average after four years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, making the salmon at the base of the dam at least the 25th generation since the first dam was built. And still, those salmon know where they belong.

Former Lower Elwha Klallam chairman Dennis Sullivan likened the salmon’s struggle to return to their ancestral waters to the Klallam people’s paddle on their ancestral waters in the annual Canoe Journey. Canoe families from Northwest indigenous nations visit other indigenous territories for cultural celebration, sharing and teachings. The Journey is a way to reclaim their heritage. Likewise, when the dams are gone, the Elwha River salmon will be able to reclaim their heritage.

“Those salmon are following in the steps of their ancestors,” Sullivan said.

Both dams were built by Toronto-born businessman Thomas Aldwell to provide electricity to a growing Port Angeles. Aldwell cut corners: The Elwha Dam wasn’t anchored to bedrock and the foundation gave way as the lake behind it filled; he plugged it with fill covered with concrete. He ignored a state law requiring dams to have fish passages, ensuring the stock’s demise.

The cultural and environmental impacts were tremendous. Klallam village sites, including the site the Klallam believe is their point of origin, were inundated. Lost were fishing, gathering and hunting areas. An estimated 18 million cubic yards of sediment built up in the lakes formed by the dams.

The river’s sediment historically replenished Ediz Hook, a three-mile-long sand spit that shelters Port Angeles from ocean-sourced swells. The spit is home to a lighthouse and Coast Guard station. Without the sediment replenishment, the Army Corps of Engineers has had to slow erosion of the spit with riprap.

The Klallam people opposed the dams from the beginning; several elders remember their parents testifying in Washington, D.C. for the dams’ removal.

The court case U.S. v. Washington upheld Native treaty fishing rights in 1974, particularly the “right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations.” Elwha Klallam leaders contended the decline in salmon population caused by the dams violated the treaty, and in 1986 asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to implement a plan to phase out and remove the dams. In 1990, the federal government began studying removal of the dams.

In 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. In 1994, the Interior Department determined removal was necessary for full restoration of the salmon runs. In 2000, the federal government acquired the dams. By this time, the region had outgrown the dams; all of Port Angeles, with the exception of one mill, got its electricity from other sources.

Ecosystem and fisheries restoration—dam removal, flood control, two water treatment plants to protect municipal water users from increased sediment load, reforestation and revegetation, sensitive species management and restoration of fish stocks—is expected to cost up to $350 million. Project partners include the Elwha Klallam, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

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Removal of the dams will take up to three years. But ecological restoration won’t be so quick. The area that is currently under Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills will be revegetated and their banks secured with native plants to prevent erosion. But that century of sediment buildup will have to wash away naturally.

Adeline Smith, 92, is the great-great-granddaughter of Hunter John, who died in 1912, the year the Elwha Dam was built. According to the tribe, Hunter John (his longevity bolstered by a diet of Elwha River Valley deer, elk, and king salmon rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D) was then 130 years old, and had been a boy when Capt. George Vancouver and the Royal Navy entered Klallam’s territorial waters on April 29, 1792.

“I remember my brother saying there were 15 villages coming up this way, so times have changed,” Smith said. “When they made the dam and the fish became obsolete, they affected a lot of people who lived on the fish.”

She believes Aldwell and other dam supporters knew what the cultural and environmental impacts of the dams would be, but chose to ignore them. “The old timers knew that the dams would deplete the fish, and it did,” she said.

Smith doubts the river will ever be like it was before the dams were built.

“I’m very happy we’ll get back some of our natural resources, our medicinal plants that grew near the river. The wildlife, the fish, we’ll get some of it back. But we won’t get the majority of it back. We’re populated and times have changed.”

Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the nutrients and sediments carried by the free-flowing river will be like lifeblood to living things in the Elwha River ecosystem.

“Our vision is that the Pacific salmon will survive,” he said. “The Pacific salmon that migrates out of here and travels way into the Aleutian Islands. The steelhead, the coho, the chum and the pinks, the sockeye. Those salmon will all survive here in the great Northwest. They have to. This is what it’s all about, taking these dams out and opening that 40, 50, 70, 100 miles up the river, for this watershed to be free again.

“I can see this estuary down there coming to life, where the geoducks and the clams and everything is spurting up again. This water is free, flowing free again.”

Frank applauded the Elwha Klallam for never giving up. “The Elwha Tribe, for the last hundred years they’ve been trying to get these dams down, and that dream has always been there.”

As people gathered for the ceremony, Klallam elder Ben Charles said those present were not alone in their celebration.

“I was just reading in Scripture a couple of nights ago, in Hebrews 12:1, it says we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” he said. “I see the ancestors watching. They’re happy about what’s going on. Some of them are crying, some of them are smiling. It’s been something that the people have been praying would happen. One hundred years. We never know what Creator’s time span is for answers. To us it’s a long time, to him it’s just a snap of the finger. But I’m glad it’s happening in my time.”

Frances Charles, Lower Elwha Klallam’s chairwoman, also commented on the spiritual significance of the day.

“We have the prayers of the Creator (and) our ancestors who are looking down upon us. This is an historic event. It’s something our children will never forget and our elders are here to witness it. And we thank those who have gone before us, that had supported us and gave us the encouragement to carry on.”

ONLINE: See how the Elwha Dam will be removed at

See how the Glines Canyon Dam will be removed at