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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Elwha Dam Comes Down

Air Date: Week of
Ancient stumps from the Elwha River bed (Photo: Ashley Ahearn/ Earth Fix)

The removal of hundred year old dams along the Elwha river in Washington State have freed up salmon runs, but they have also clogged up a water treatment plant with sediment. Still as Ashley Ahearn of the public radio collaborative EarthFix reports, that sediment is creating a great habitat for fish.


CURWOOD: Workers in the state of Washington have almost finished tearing down the hundred year old dams on the Elwha River. The hope is to restore some once legendary salmon runs and allow the coho, pink, sockeye and chum to flourish again alongside the steelhead trout. But the newly free-flowing river has churned up so much sediment that it's clogged a local water treatment plant. Still, as Ashley Ahearn of the public media collaborative EarthFix reports, the rich sediment is providing excellent habitat for fish and wildlife on the Olympic Peninsula.


Mouth of the Elwha, where millions of cubic yards of sediment, released from above the dams, are creating new beaches and sandbars. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn/Earth Fix)

AHEARN: I’m at the mouth of the Elwha catching up with Anne Shaffer, who is a tough lady to keep up with, I will tell you that much.


Everything is fresh. That’s my first impression. This is a new place. I’m walking on new earth that’s been delivered from above the lower dam now, millions of cubic yards. It’s making little tidal pools, sand banks, depositing hundreds of huge logs. It’s coming back to life.

SHAFFER: It’s unvegetated but this is definitely the habitat that juvenile fish need.


AHEARN: Anne Shaffer stands with a group of volunteers in hip waders. She’s the executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute. Every month she and the team come out to these tidal pools near the mouth of the river with a large net called a seine net.

SHAFFER: You ready?


AHEARN: The group gently works the net in a narrowing circle, corralling the fish into one place where they can count and measure them.

SHAFFER: Shake down as you go, watch for fish.

AHEARN: The goal is to keep tabs on what kinds of fish are using this new habitat to fatten up before heading out to the open ocean. Volunteers call out the names and lengths of each fish in the net, as Anne Shaffer jots them down on a clipboard.

WOMAN: Starry flounder 150.

MAN: Steelhead 140, 147.

AHEARN: Chris Byrnes is a fish biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and one of the volunteers today. He’s cupping a tiny Steelhead in his hands.

BYRNES: Do we have a camera? I’d like to get a picture of this one.

AHEARN: How come?

BYRNES: Because his fins are all eroded. He looks really roughed up.


AHEARN: All the sediment that’s been released from above the dams is making life hard for fish right now. But there’s more to come. So far only one-fifth of the total sediment the dams have held back over the past 100 years has been released.

BYRNES: And all the steelhead look this way. They look really kind of haggard.

AHEARN: Anne Shaffer says it’s too early to know just how much the sediment is affecting fish population numbers.

SHAFFER: We’re still seeing a lot of fish, we’re still seeing approximately the same species richness and then we’re seeing changes in the abundance by species. And it’s too early to really interpret that other than there’s a response going on and that’s certainly to be expected.

AHEARN: The sediment rushing down from below the dams may not be great for fish right now, but it’s doing wonders for their habitat. All that dirt and clay is forming new beaches and mudflats here. And the fish are using them. But the mouth of the Elwha isn’t the only part of the river where new habitat is emerging.


MCHENRY: We’re going to head down here a ways a quarter mile or so and I’ll get you out on the former reservoir surface.”

AHEARN: Mike McHenry is a fisheries habitat biologist with the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. He’s taking me to a place very few people have seen - because it’s been underwater for 100 years. We’re about 5 miles from the mouth of the Elwha – just above where the lower dam used to be. Not too long ago, this was a 250-acre reservoir known as Lake Aldwell. Now it’s a lifeless-looking mudflat with the Elwha flowing through it in braided, chocolatey channels. But McHenry says nature’s already bouncing back.

MCHENRY: We’ve seen pools that have amphibians in them already. There’s a lot of insect activity here. It’s not a moonscape, it’s an early successional landscape that’s just gonna get better.

Volunteers from the Coastal Watershed Institute count and measure fish using the newly available estuarine habitat at the mouth of the Elwha this spring (Photo: Ashley Ahearn/Earth Fix)

AHEARN: This newly-exposed mudflat won’t be brown for long. The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe is working with Olympic National Park to plant native trees and shrubs here. 66,000 trees have been planted and about 350,000 more will go in above both dams by the time the dam removal process is finished. McHenry leans over to brush the green leaves of a sturdy looking plant, fighting its way out of the sandy soil.

MCHENRY: We have thimbleberry here, which is a native shrub.

AHEARN: This area was cleared and logged 100 years ago – and then submerged when the dams went in. Now that the lake has drained away, giant ghostly stumps have emerged. Mike McHenry is not a short guy – and he is dwarfed by the remnants of these trees.

MCHENRY: And you can see the old growth stumps. The stumps out here are preserved almost like they were cut yesterday and there were some amazing trees that stood in this valley at one time.

AHEARN: The stumps make for a sort of forlorn scene now – like something out of the children’s book ‘The Lorax’. We clamber up one of them. It’s about 12-feet tall but there are toe-holds carved into the sides by the loggers that felled this tree so long ago.

Mike McHenry rests his elbows on the surface of the stump. It’s wider than an eight-person dining room table. He runs his fingers over the exposed tree rings tracing back over the tree’s growth history – hundreds of years. He says someday there could be trees like this here again.

MCHENRY: You and I won’t be around to witness it, but hopefully our grandchildren and great grandchildren will be. So that’s a pretty exciting thought.

Ashley Ahearn (photo: EarthFix)

AHEARN: And big fish.

MCHENRY: Big fish too. Big trees, big fish, they go together.

AHEARN: I’m Ashley Ahearn on the banks of the Elwha River.

CURWOOD: Ashley's story comes to us from the public media collaborative, EarthFix.



Check out the piece on the EarthFix website

EarthFix is a public radio collaborative reporting on environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest


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