PORT ANGELES, Wash. - For more than 100 years, two dams controlled the Elwha river on the Olympic Peninsula. The Lower Elwha dam was built in 1910, 17 years later and 8 miles further upstream the Glines Canyon dam was built.
When they were completed, the dams helped power the region's booming timber industry. In recent years however the relatively small power output and larger hydroelectric projects on the Columbia River made these two dams obsolete.
Before the dams, the Elwha supported massive runs of spawning salmon. By the hundreds of thousands they took advantage of the river's proximity to the Pacific and it's extensive spawning grounds. But since no fish ladder or other accommodation was made as part of the dam design, when the first dam went up in 1910, no more salmon made it up river.
In 1992 the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was signed, eight years later the government bought the land and the dams fates were sealed. Work began in September of 2011 with the careful demolition of the Lower Elwha dam. Both of the lakes were drained and the river picked a new path through the former lake beds. The final section of the Glines Canyon dam was removed in late August of 2014. The Elwha was wild again.
Decades of sediment, woody debris, are working their way downstream, while salmon are working their way up the 38 miles of newly accessible habitat. No one knows if they will return in the numbers they once did, but so far the signs are encouraging.
KOMO-TV Reporter Jeff Burnside and I were lucky enough to join a small group of reporters and officials on a decent down the Elwha. We started just downstream of the Glines Canyon and spend the next three hours getting an up close look at the reborn river. Our guides from Olympic Raft and Kayak told us that each time there is a big rainstorm, the river changes its path. The river is in its adolescence, not sure where it wants to go or what it wants to be. 100 years of sediment and old dead wood are working their way downstream, and they change the river's path too.
The rapids would have been more rapid if it was spring, but the summer water flow was still strong. We got splashed pretty good a few times. As we made it down into what used to be Lake Aldwell, we saw how nature is coming back. Native plants, some place by parks staff, have taken hold and are rapidly erasing the last 100 years of control.
We even spotted a few salmon on our trip, finding their way upstream, as if they'd never left.
Park officials hope to have some areas of the Glines Canyon open by the end of 2014.
UPDATE: Salmon have been spotted upstream of the Glines Canyon project.