The demolition of the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River in Washington began ten years ago and remains the largest dam removal and river restoration in history. Since the dredges and dynamite demolished Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam, this beautiful aquamarine river has made a remarkable recovery. The Elwha River, which now flows freely from the Olympic Mountains into the Salish Sea, once again supports salmon runs along its entire length and a rejuvenated web of life, from bears to eagles to orcas.
The story of the Elwha contains important lessons for the future of our nation’s rivers, and it is an inspiration to bring potentially transformative, bipartisan river restoration proposals to Congress and the Biden government now before Congress.
One of the main tenets of the Elwha is the power of indigenous leaders in efforts to restore rivers. The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe were the first to advocate dismantling the Elwha River dams, and their knowledge and support contributed to the project’s ultimate success. Since the fall of the Elwha Dam, other tribes have achieved great success in restoring their rivers. The Yakama Nation was instrumental in restoring Washington’s White Salmon River by removing the Condit Dam. The Penobscot Nation was key to removing dams on the Penobscot River in Maine. The Yurok, Karuk, Klamath, and other tribes have spearheaded decade-long efforts to remove four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California to restore salmon runoff and water quality – with demolition scheduled to begin in 2023.
Since the Elwha dams fell, our nation’s river restoration movement has seen tremendous growth. More than 800 dams have fallen in the last 10 years, led by states like Pennsylvania, California and Michigan. During this time, many communities and stakeholders have followed the tribal leadership to understand the multidimensional benefits of dam dismantling that are exacerbating our climate and environmental justice crisis in this country.
The need to remove harmful, obsolete and unsafe dams is more important than ever. Climate change is putting unprecedented pressure on our rivers as increasing flooding threatens potentially fatal dam bursts. More than 20 dams failed in the Carolinas during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and last year the Edenville Dam in Michigan failed, forcing thousands to evacuate. Elsewhere, rising temperatures and decreasing amounts of water make the clean, cold water of free flowing rivers essential if we are to protect fish and wildlife, as well as the biodiversity that is vital to indigenous ecosystems.
Where is the river restoration movement going from here? Congress and the Biden administration are currently considering several proposals. The non-partisan 21NS Century Dams Act – Laws negotiated by conservation groups, dam safety advocates, and the hydropower industry – would invest billions in removing, upgrading and rehabilitating dams across the country. It would restore 10,000 miles of free flowing rivers by dismantling 1,000 dams, improve dam safety, and point a course for hydropower in our country’s energy future. The infrastructure draft approved by the Senate also contains essential provisions on river renaturation.
In addition, urgent action is needed to remove four state dams on Washington’s Lower Snake River to keep endangered salmon from extinction and to meet treaties and commitments to Native American tribes. The snake has historically been the largest salmon producer in the Columbia River Basin, but the numbers are now at all-time lows – in large part due to dams. Executives across the region, from U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., And Oregon Governor Kate Brown, are listening to calls from the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederate Tribes of Umatilla -Indian Reservation, Yakama Nation, Upper Snake River Tribes, and other tribes in the northwest and across the country to advocate salmon recovery, invest in clean energy, and strengthen the region’s infrastructure and economy. We need other elected leaders, including U.S. sensors Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Governor Jay Inslee, to seize and seize this opportunity.
Across the country, it is vital that we balance our needs for dam services with our needs for clean water and healthy rivers. Congress and the Biden administration must both be 21.NS Century Dams Act and Removal of the Lower Snake River Dam. Perhaps the most important teaching of the Elwha is that rivers are wonderfully resilient and will support us – and all life – if we have the collective courage and vision to set them free.