Thoughts from Chief Fishmonger, Dale Sims
California Fish & Game biologist Doug Killam holds an 88-pound Pacific chinook salmon. It's hoped the removal of the Elwha Dam in Washington state could result in even bigger fish. (California Department of Fish and Game photo)
How in the world is it possible to illegally build two concrete dams, one 105 feet high, the other 210 feet high, and have them remain in operation for nearly a century (99 and 84 years respectively)? To answer this question, I consulted that oracle of wisdom: my genetically modified barn animal, the elephino.
On Wednesday of this week (June 1st) the wheels stopped turning at the Elwha Dam powerhouse. "We're going to let this river be wild again," said Amy Kober, a spokesperson for American Rivers, an advocacy group. The generators may be powering down, but the river is powering up. The Elwha River, cascading out of the mountains for 45 miles down the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, once teemed with all five species of Pacific salmon, including the fabled June run of Chinooks known as the June Hogs. These were king salmon weighing in at upwards of 100 pounds each. Two large concrete dams were constructed in the early 1900s. These dams were built without fish ladders, so only five miles of the river was left for returning salmon. It is estimated that prior to 1910, close to 400,000 salmon migrated up the Elwha every year. In 2005 there were only 5,000 salmon. With a 99% decline in the salmon population the June Hogs were little more than piglets.
Both the 105-foot Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Giles Canyon Dam eight miles upstream are being removed. The actual demolition will start this fall. This is the largest dam removal project undertaken in the United States. Forget about the water for a moment. There are more than 24 million cubic yards just of sediment trapped behind the dams in two man-made lakes/reservoirs, Lake Mills and Lake Adwell. That's enough to fill a football stadium two miles high.
So, what about this government sanctioned illegal construction? At the time these dams were built, Washington state law required dams to be built with fish ladders. However, the companies building the dams didn't bother to follow that particular provision in the law. Construction on the Elwha Dam began in 1910. The very next year, the county game warden expressed alarm that no fish were appearing above the dam site and that spawners were congregating below the dam, unable to reach the historical salmon spawning areas. Following the recommendation of Leslie Darwin, the state fish commissioner, Olympic Power and Development Company circumvented the law by building a fish hatchery that was physically connected to the dam. The dam was declared an official state-sanctioned fish obstruction for the purpose of supplying the hatchery with eggs. In an agreement with the state of Washington signed in August 1914, Olympic Power donated the land and $2,500 for the state to build a hatchery.
Washington Governor Ernest Lister liked the idea so much he persuaded the state legislature to endorse building hatcheries instead of providing for fish passages at new dams. The Ehwha hatchery was finished in 1915. It was abandoned in 1922 because of a lack of returning brood stock. But, a precedent had been set. Dams began to multiply and hatcheries became the core for the management of the state fisheries.
The push to remove these dams officially began May 15, 1986, when the Seattle Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and Olympic Park Associates formally requested removal of these dams at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) meeting. It has taken 25 years to wind its way through the halls of government bureaucracy, legislative red tape and pork-barrel politics. But, it has happened. The cost to remove these dams is pegged at around $324MM.
They say freedom doesn't come cheap.