Elwha River Recovery

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We spent last weekend out on the Olympic Peninsula, mostly visiting with friends and fishing a bit on the Sol Duc River. But the drive out there gave me time to stop off and introduce the kids to another old friend–the Elwha River. We didn’t have much time, but with dusk rapidly approaching, we pulled over at the bridge and walked up and down looking at the rebirth of a river.

The Elwha was once among the greatest salmon rivers in the world. Aside from the famous run of king salmon that grew to 100 pounds, there were staggering runs of coho, steelhead, sockeye, chum and pink salmon that together totaled nearly 400,000 fish per year. But in 1911, the Elwha Dam, built just upstream of the mouth, cut off 70 miles of the river from the sea. In 1927, to add insult to injury, Glines Canyon Dam was built eight miles upstream. Predictably, the salmon populations crashed.

Today, though, after years of hard work by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and a broad coalition of conservation groups, the Elwha Dam is gone and Glines Canyon is almost out. The river flows naturally for the first time in more than a century. This is the largest dam removal project in North American history, and a source of much celebration. From our viewpoint, we could tell the usual clear, green, low-water flows of a dam-controlled watershed are gone, replaced by a wandering stream bed carrying a huge sediment load (100 years of accumulation behind the dams) and wandering across the gravel flood plain, seeking it’s natural channel. It was uplifting to see.

There is a fly in the ointment, though. In spite of the best available science clearly demonstrating the negative effects hatchery fish have on wild salmon recovery, the dam removal-budget included a brand-new, $16 million hatchery. I have a hard time understanding the logic here. It’s as if the Federal Government decided to invest in a $325 million lung-cancer reduction project, only to spend $16 million of it to build a cigarette factory on the premises. I believe this is known as shooting one’s self in the foot.

I say, let the river come back on its own. Nature has been repopulating watersheds destroyed by natural disaster for thousands of years without human “help.” As biologist Bill McMillan points out, when Mt. St. Helens filled the Toutle River with boiling ash flows, killing the stream itself and everything in it, wild steelhead repopulated the river on their own. And quickly. Within seven years, there were more wild winter steelhead in the Toutle than any other lower Columbia tributary.

But I digress. And I will get off the soap box. I just hate the idea of hatchery after so much effort has gone into the dam removal in the name of wild salmon recovery. And it rankles even more when I think that we taxpayers are footing the hatchery bill. The main point, though, is positive. The dams are gone. And the river runs free. I hope that one day, I can fish it again with Skyla and Weston…with hopes of 100 pound salmon swimming through our imaginations.

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