Hydropower vital to Northwest – and so are salmon

The Pacific Northwest is well-known for its dams that provide carbon-neutral hydropower. Now we are also becoming famous for taking them down, undertaking a series of dam demolition projects that rank as the largest in United States history.

The removal of three dams represents a positive step toward restoration of access to spawning grounds for some of the Northwest’s legendary wild salmon runs.

Two of the dams being demolished are on the Elwha River near Port Angeles, and the third is on the White Salmon River, east of Vancouver and across the Columbia from Hood River, Ore.

As The Olympian reported recently, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe are rejoicing because chinook salmon – guided by improbable DNA recall – are already returning to their river after a 100-year absence.

The migratory fish – weighing as much as 100 pounds, according to tribal stories – were blocked from about 70 miles of Elwha River watershed by the 108-foot Elwha Dam, built in 1914, and the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam, built miles upriver from the Elwha in 1927.

This victory for the environment, the salmon and the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s tourism industry didn’t come easily, even though the two dams combined were providing just 28 megawatts of power to a declining pulp mill.

Through the efforts of the tribe, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992. But it took another 20 years of effort by the tribe – and supported by the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the National Park Service – to get the $325 million project under way.

That’s a heady price for returning a river to its natural state, but this isn’t just any river and no insignificant salmon run.

An article in The New York Times by Timothy Egan described it this way: “The investment here will not only return a river to its natural state, but lays the foundation for a wild salmon fishery like no other in the 48 states. Imagine having a place, two hours and change from the 3 million people of the Seattle metro area, that looks like Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula – and has the fish to bring in visitors to expand what is already a thriving tourist industry.”

Along those 70 miles of the river and its tributaries, upwards of 400,000 salmon used to spawn in the pre-dam years. Since the dams were built, that number had dropped to 3,000, according to the NPS in 1996.

Fish are just starting to return to the river. The Elwha Dam came down in March, and about half of the Glines Canyon Dam has been removed. It will be completely gone by next summer, when the tribe hopes fish will migrate through the whole Elwha system.

Hydropower-generating dams remain important to the national power grid. Although hydropower accounts for only 8 percent of all U.S. electrical production, that represents 80 percent of the nation’s renewable energy source.

And hydropower is particularly important to the Northwest, providing nearly 70 percent of the region’s electricity. The Columbia and Snake rivers provide 40 percent of that hydropower.

But when a dam has outlived its purpose, it’s a wonderful thing to return those rivers to their natural state and watch the miracle of Mother Nature’s restorative capacity.