Five Years Later, the Elwha Reborn

September 9, 2016

Photographer and filmmaker John Gussman has been documenting the restoration of the Elwha since the first chunks of concrete dam fell five years ago.

“It’s a shining light,” he says. “The success on the Elwha shows we can actually fix things.”

Now that the dams are gone, Gussman, a resident of Sequim, WA has witnessed what he describes as the “rapid recovery of nature” — the sediment that has moved downriver to restore the beach at the river’s mouth, to the plants and trees reclaiming land once drowned by reservoirs, to the salmon and other fish and wildlife rebounding.

“Nature knows best,” he says. Gussman co-directed the film Return of the River that tells the Elwha’s story.

I was on the Elwha in September 2011 when the world’s biggest restoration project kicked off. Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam had blocked the river for roughly 100 years, completely blocking salmon from historic habitat and destroying the river central to the culture and heritage of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

I remember standing on Elwha Dam, watching salmon circling in the pool below. I remember being amazed that even after all this time, they were still returning, still trying to get upstream.

Now they can.

Elwha Dam was gone for good in March 2012. Glines Canyon Dam, the tallest ever removed at 210 feet high, was gone by September 2014. The journey began in 1978 when Elwha Dam failed to pass its safety inspection. The tribe worked with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to conduct a failure analysis on the dam and demonstrate the catastrophic flood risk to the reservation. This catalyst sparked a decades-long effort to restore the Elwha River with unrelenting work by the tribe and conservation groups, including American Rivers.

I asked Robert Elofson, River Restoration Program Director for the tribe, how he feels now that we’ve hit the five-year mark. He says the tribe “takes pride that it has played a lead role in such a successful project” and tribal members are looking forward to resuming fishing for ceremonial purposes next year (a fishing moratorium has been in effect since 2011 to let fish populations rebound).

He has seen the benefits of dam removal first hand, from the crabs he has caught at the river’s mouth to the elk sign he noticed on the former Lake Aldwell reservoir lands.

It’s rare that we have a chance to make a river truly wild again, and on the Elwha we did. Eighty-three percent of the river is protected inside Olympic National Park. The dams were the only major impact to the river — so since the dams have come down, the river has been a one-of-a-kind laboratory to watch a river come back to life.

This special report from the Seattle Times sums up the ongoing transformation:

Elk stroll where there used to be reservoirs. Bigger, fatter birds are bearing more young, and moving in to stay. A young forest grows where there was blowing sand in the former reservoir lakebeds. Seeds tumble down the river’s coursing current. The big pulse of sediment trapped behind the dams is passed; the river has regained its luminous teal green color, and its channel is stabilizing.

Logs are tumbling and stacking in the river, building complex, braided channels, islands and jams.

And fish are booming back: More than 4,000 chinook spawners were counted above the former Elwha Dam the first season after it came down. Overall, fish populations are the highest in 30 years. And that’s before the first progeny of salmon and steelhead going to sea since dam removal come back this year.

“It has been a real success,” Elofson says.

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