Elwha River: Past and Current Journey of a River Released

  • August 10, 2015

By Megan Hill

Photo at right: Elwha River delta where it meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, June 3, 2015. Photo by Tom Roorda. Courtesy of Coastal Watershed Institute  www.coastalwatershedinstitute.org

At the mouth of the Elwha River there may seem to be an unremarkable site, but for conservationists, it’s cause for celebration. Since the completion of the world’s largest dam removal project last summer, 2014, gray-brown sediment fans out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the first time in over a century.

That sediment is creating new habitat for scores of plants and marine wildlife, and it is rebuilding beaches at the Elwha’s mouth and riverbanks along the northern shores of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

The Glines Canyon Dam, a hydroelectric dam built 8 miles upstream from the mouth of the Elwha, stood 210 feet high before it was dismantled in 2012. Together with the smaller Elwha Dam, built only 3 miles upstream, the structures not only created electricity for a local pulp mill and the local Port Angeles economy, but they also trapped sediment and blocked salmon migration.

These factors combined ruined the livelihood of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe by destroying important traditional fisheries.

Thankfully, mainly due to the removal of the dams and the release of sediment, the local salmon population and habitat recovery has been remarkable. Removal of the dams occurred between the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012 and soon after there were salmon migrating upstream and new vegetation taking root in the drained beds of Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell, the reservoirs behind the Glines Canyon Dam and Elwha Dam, respectively.

A Success Story

This success story is owed to decades-long lobbying by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal members and environmental advocates on the local, state and national levels. Since the mid-1980s they have worked together to prove to Congress and the Washington state legislature that the benefits of removing the dam outweighed the cost of keeping the dams in place.

Finally in 1992, Congress authorized the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, and the federal purchase of the dams from the timber company James River Corporation. They also began to investigate the possibility of removing the dams completely.

It would take much longer for the dams to be dismantled, however. Opposition was strong from the timber companies and Congress causing the lobbying to continue for another decade. Eventually the removal was approved and by 2004, a plan for removal was finally in place.

With enough sediment behind the dams to collectively fill nine CenturyLink stadiums, the dams would have to come down in stages.

The removal of the Glines Canyon Dam began on Sept. 15, 2011, and the removal of the Elwha Dam began later that same month. The entire project was completed in August 2014.

Fast forward to today and visitors will find 70 acres of new beach and estuary habitat where the Elwha meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This restoration supports creatures like schools of surf smelt, crabs, clams and more.

“The restoration is in full swing,” says Barbara Maynes, Olympic National Park’s public information officer. “One exciting signpost of the recovery was a few weeks after the final piece of the upper dam was removed, the first Chinook were spotted above the former dam site. That was the first Chinook salmon in the upper watershed of the Elwha in 100 years, so that was pretty cool.”

What has also been interesting to watch is the habitat returning to support the development of the eggs into small fish and fry.

“The sediment flow is restored and, consequently, the composition of the riverbed is also restored,” Maynes adds. “There are places where it was just mainly cobble stones that have now been replaced with much smaller sand and gravel, which is more conducive to spawning.” Birds, such as eagles, gulls and cormorants have returned to the area to feast on salmon eggs and fry.

On the plants side, Maynes says the human-driven revegetation effort is winding down. This massive effort involved propagating native plant seedlings and transplanting them in the former reservoir beds where there is now dry land.

“In the first year of the reservoir exposing shoreline, the cottonwoods grew quickly. By the following summer they were over 12-feet-high and still growing.”

The Return to a Natural State

The new Glines Canyon Overlook. Photo by John Gussman, the co-director of the 2015 documentary, Return of the River, a film about the largest dam removal project in the history of the U.S. www.elwhafilm.com

Scientists are currently conducting studies on the return of small mammals, like river otters, mice and voles. Maynes says the river otters have noticed the salmon’s return, and they’re coming back to hunt on the river as a result.

Biologists are also watching Roosevelt elk movement now that these large mammals have more land to inhabit. There is also an expectation that larger creatures like bears will also begin to benefit from the newly regained habitat.

Sediment is now flowing freely all the way down the river, rebuilding the delta and its estuary ecosystem and forming new beaches. However, as the Elwha continues to evolve, the new beach area at the mouth of the river has attracted public use.

The Coastal Watershed Institute is leading the restoration efforts along the Elwha delta where it meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The area, though not public land, is now visited by hundreds of people a day. All-terrain vehicle use, beach bonfires, and shoreline landowner development along the new beaches is causing an alarming amount of damage to this fragile eco-system.

The restoration of the Elwha shoreline is a complex process and the communities that continue to work hard on the Elwha shoreline request the public’s collaboration in keeping this new national treasure pristine.

There is hope that as more dams come down around North America that the success of the Elwha River Dam removal will inspire similar projects and intentional plans of restoration.

If you go

Olympic National Park opened Glines Canyon Overlook on the former Elwha River Dam spillway in May 2015. The overlook allows visitors to peer into the canyon at the former dam site and witness the revegetation firsthand.

There are also new interpretive exhibits and a restroom at the overlook. Along with exhibits at the Elwha Ranger Station in Port Angeles, there are free ranger-guided walks available to the public. See detailed information about these walks in Resources below.

August 14, 2015

Current Elwha River Updates

  • King salmon in Elwha River August, 2015. Photo by John Gussman

    King Salmon are successfully spawning up river, seen here in John Gussman’s photo taken August 11, 2015.
  • River Returns is a documentary film about the Elwha Dam removal project and the extraordinary effort of the largest dam removal and restoration of an eco-system project in the history of the United States.
    The film has won nine awards and has been shown in over fourteen film festivals since it debuted in June 2014. The film was recently invited to premier at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York on October 21, 2015. For more information click here to view a trailer for the film.
  • Clallam County is asking for input on its parks department planning for Salt Creek County Park, and various Elwha access sites to restored shorelines and Olympic Peninsula Beaches. They welcome public input through this short and easy to use survey.
  • With close to 100 new acres of beach created by the sediment from the Elwha dam removal, there is an increase in favorable habitat for salmon and smolts. The downside of this new landscape is because this is also public land, the new beaches are also drawing large crowds of people and the impact is destroying the fragile eco-system. Please help spread the educational word — be patient please, the beach is still in formation and the eco-system is still too fragile for traditional beach use.

Getting You on Your Way

Trip Details

August 14, 2015 ALERT!

Olympic Hot Springs Road and Whiskey Bend Road closed for repairs. Due to extensive damage during last winter’s heavy rains and floods, the two roads will be closed at different intervals this fall.
Olympic Hot Springs Road will be closed September 8 through approximately September 30. The 4.5 mile Whiskey Bend Road has been closed since last winter due to a landslide. The road is scheduled for repairs this fall as well, but no start and completion dates have been reported.

Glines Canyon Overlook will be closed to visitor viewing and tours during the repair project on Olympic Hot Springs Road

  • Ranger Lead Walks: June 20 – Sept. 6, 2015
  • Elwha River Walk: Explore former Lake Mills and see the Elwha River up close on this hour-long guided hike. Meet at Glines Canyon Spillway Overlook.
    Wednesday through Saturday 2 p.m.
  • Elwha Tales: Learn about different aspects of the Elwha River restoration story at this 20 minute talk. Meet at Glines Canyon Spillway Overlook.
    Daily (except Monday) 10  a.m. and 1 p.m.
  • Directions to Glines Canyon Overlook: From Port Angeles, follow Highway 101 to Olympic Hot Springs Road. Turn left and follow approximately 4 miles to Elwha Ranger Station. Turn left onto Whiskey Bend Road and follow approximately 1 mile to Glines Canyon Overlook. Discovery Pass required.


Olympic National Park: www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm

Elwha Ranger Station: www.facebook.com/pages/Elwha-Ranger-Station/204361942918428

Coastal Watershed Institute:

Updates: www.coastalwatershedinstitute.org

Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Coastal-Watershed-Institute/103459949714545

Megan Hill is a Seattle-based freelance writer. She specializes in writing about food, travel and the outdoors. www.meganhillfreelancewriter.com