WASHINGTON - They were known as June Hogs, the 100-pound chinook salmon that up until nearly a century ago returned to the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula.
Stood on end, these behemoths were taller than a man. They were among the estimated 392,000 fish that returned to the Elwha every year to spawn, runs that according to homesteaders turned the river into a “wiggling” mass from bank to bank.
Now, fewer than 3,000 fish return. Most of the spawning grounds of a river that springs from the snowfields of the Olympic Mountains, is fed by 100 inches of rain a year, and flows through stands of old-growth cedar are blocked by two dams built in the early 1900s.
That’s about to change.
In what is the largest dam removal project ever in the United States, the federal government last week requested bids to demolish the two structures. The dams won’t be blown up, but deliberately dismantled over roughly three years so the 19 million cubic yards of silt, gravel and rock behind them can be flushed downstream gradually.
Once the dams are down, it may take 10 years to re-establish the runs. Some salmon will be flown by helicopter to the upper reaches of the Elwha watershed. The initial runs will include what native fish remain and those raised in a nearby hatchery. Eventually, the runs are expected to become wild.
Scientists say that if the salmon runs can’t be restored on the Elwha, they can’t be restored anywhere.
More than 85 percent of the river’s salmon habitat is in Olympic National Park, remote backcountry even now barely touched by humans.
“I have no doubt this will work,” said Brian Winter, the Elwha Project manager for the National Park Service.
Winter, a fisheries biologist who has been working on restoring the Elwha runs since 1985, said the river is a living laboratory that has been studied for decades.
“This isn’t so much about taking out the dams, it’s about seeing the first salmon headed upstream,” he said.
Others are calling it the “last dam summer” as demolition work is expected to begin next year.
“All eyes, including internationally, are on it to see how a river comes back to life,” said Amy Kober of American Rivers. “The lessons we learn on the Elwha will apply to other rivers around the nation.”
To the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the removal of the dams is about more than salmon. When the dams were built, their reservoirs inundated the site of the tribe’s only inland village and the “tribal creation site” where, according to legend, the tribe was created.
“We just have word of mouth about where they are,” said Robert Elofson, the tribe’s director of Elwha River restoration. “It’s been 100 years.”
The dam removal project began in 1992 when Congress approved the Elwha River Restoration Act. Several attempts to strip funding over the years failed.
The project will cost more than $300 million. The cost of actually removing the dams – $60 million to $70 million – is only a portion of the price tag.
The 105-foot Elwha Dam, five miles upstream from where the river flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was finished in 1913. The taller Glines Canyon Dam sits about eight miles upstream inside Olympic National Park. It was built in 1927, a decade before the park was established.
The construction of the two dams left less than five miles of river for the salmon to spawn in. All told, the Elwha and its tributaries provide about 70 miles of spawning habitat. Both dams were built without fish ladders or other fish passage facilities.
Winter said salmon have been seen bumping into the base of the Elwha Dam as they try to find a way upriver.
The privately owned dams provided electricity that helped power the economy of the Olympic Peninsula, including the Bremerton Naval Shipyard and nearby paper mills. The cost was the end of legendary runs that included all species of Pacific salmon: chinook, coho, pink, chum and sockeye – as well as steelhead trout.
Before seeking bids to remove the dams, the Interior Department, which includes the National Park Service, spent $24.5 million on a water treatment plant for the city of Port Angeles and $69.6 million for other water facilities. Port Angeles takes its drinking water from the Elwha, and there were concerns the silt released by the removal of the dams could affect water quality.
The Interior Department also paid $16.4 million to construct a new tribal fish hatchery. Work is also under way on some levy modifications.
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008