IN SEPTEMBER 2011, I stood on a river overlook with children from my daughter’s elementary school, all of us transfixed by a giant jackhammer pounding cement to rubble. Below us, a waterfall raged through the first notch carved in the Lower Elwha Dam, as dust rose in the September sunshine, drifting over Douglas fir and cedar crowns. Trees were the only spectators old enough to remember when the Elwha River ran free, a century earlier. The rest of us stood in awe, watching the world’s largest dam removal to date, feeling time start to spin in reverse.
I’ve spent a decade bearing witness to an unprecedented restoration experiment in Washington State. That September day committed me to unraveling the river’s story, while dam removal raised enough questions to keep scientists engaged for years to come.
The Elwha River begins in the Olympic Mountains, a rugged range encircled by ocean on three sides. Rivers radiate from the center of the Olympic Peninsula, short and steep, born from deep snowpack at the heart of the range. The Elwha River tumbles over four thousand feet in forty-five miles, from alpine meadows into rock canyons and flood plains, until it meets the sea in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
When the first dam rose in 1911, it blocked the river just five miles upstream from the ocean. A second dam, constructed in Glines Canyon shortly before the creation of Olympic National Park, would operate within park boundaries for more than seven decades.
The beauty and diversity of Olympic National Park draws visitors from around the world. Many come to experience its “ancient groves” of old-growth forest. To me, this familiar landscape does not feel ancient. I imagine this is what the world was like when it was young. Freshly scrubbed by glaciers, with terrain like a restless teenager, prone to earthquakes and pulsing with life. The first time I took my daughter to a salmon creek during a fall run, we heard fish long before we could see them, splashing and slapping their tails in their raucous run upstream. Next came the stench of carcasses, salmon that had spawned and died, lining the bank. Finally, we caught a glimpse of the creek, where a cloud of pink salmon stirred an azure pool, circling below a stretch of rapids. Pink salmon arrive every other year, odd years only. When they return, they are the wildebeest of the Olympic Peninsula, a migration that once felt uncountable.
Wild salmon weave freshwater and saltwater ecosystems together, and rivers are the threads between those worlds. Impounding a river severs that connection in both directions. When dams were built without fish passage on the Elwha River, the most immediate impact was a barrier for anadromous fish.The river had legendary fish runs, attracting all five species of Pacific salmon, unusual in the region. The most iconic species was chinook, famous for its enormous size. Members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe describe hundred-pound salmon, fish so big that children struggled to drag a single one home in a gunnysack.
Courtesy of USGS
A century after the first dam was constructed, these giant Chinook lived on in memory, with a remnant population supported by a hatchery. Pink salmon teetered on the edge of extirpation. Numbers of all anadromous fish in the Elwha, ten species including salmon, steelhead, and trout, had dwindled to a tiny fraction of the river’s past abundance. To visitors, the Elwha Valley felt wild, with much of the watershed protected by Olympic National Park. People who knew the river well heard the silence, and saw a system on the verge of collapse.
Dam removal began when my daughter was in kindergarten, after decades of advocacy by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, environmental groups, and politicians. Now I trek into the valley with a teenager, hiking around washouts on a road we once drove. As we head upriver, a bobcat slinks across remaining pavement and disappears into a stand of bigleaf maple. Low mist hangs over the valley, as we orient ourselves in a changing landscape. When the upper dam came down, the river began to wander and tear at an access road that served a power station and the national park, carving unfamiliar channels with every flood.
We return each autumn to watch for salmon, the headline success story of dam removal, but this trip is timed for a different annual ritual. When the takedown of Elwha dams shifted from a crazy idea to imminent reality, revegetation specialists planned for the moment when water would drain away from two reservoirs, exposing land buried for a hundred years. An estimated 24 million cubic yards of sediment collected behind the dams, creating a challenge for ecologists who hoped to jump-start the process of plant succession. Their goal was to outrace invasive plant species in eight hundred acres laid bare by dewatering, and to set the stage for a future forest. Crews collected seeds from the Elwha Valley long before the dams came down, propagating native plants by the thousands. Volunteers transplanted more than 300,000 starts while teams prepared to scatter tons of natively sourced seed. As the final day approached, restoration ecologist Joshua Chenoweth added one last seed species to the master plan, despite limited supply: lupine, known for its nitrogen-fixing capacity.
Ten years later, the trail into the former reservoir, once known as Lake Mills, begins at an abandoned boat ramp. Our family pushes through a young forest of cottonwood and willow saplings, crowding the ramp where kayaks once launched. We call out as we enter a dense thicket of growth, hoping to alert black bears. The sweet smell of lupine reaches us before we emerge from the willows, into a sea of purple. The former reservoir is awash in lupine. These flowers are the first step in a slow transformation from stranded sediment to mature forest.
When salmon disappear, an entire watershed begins to change in subtle ways. Fish went missing from the whisper of trees, changing the inner workings of the forest. When salmon return to mountain streams, they transport marine-derived nutrients deep inland, feeding the forests that shade their spawning habitat. Scientists have shown the presence of ocean nutrients in the tissue of trees, many miles from shore. Migrating salmon attract wildlife, from otter to bear, who in turn help to distribute carcasses throughout the forest.
The single biggest question surrounding Elwha Dam removal was: Would the fish return, after a hundred-year absence? Fish numbers have increased steadily since the dams came down, and by 2019 Elwha Chinook numbered well over 7,000 adults. Mike McHenry, fisheries biologist at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, says that 2019 numbers suggest a fivefold increase for juvenile Chinook, the first “strong signal” for natural chinook production in newly available habitat. He notes that river conditions began to stabilize in recent years. During initial salmon seasons after dam removal, turbid water and shifting channels posed a challenge for returning fish. During floods the river churned the color of chocolate milk, creating a sediment plume visible offshore, transforming the estuary and nearshore habitat. As these sediment pulses began to subside, the river and estuary came to life.
In addition to fish numbers, biologists are tracking the distribution and life histories of fish. A surge of summer steelhead in the upper river surprised scientists, who began to suspect that genetically similar rainbow trout were rediscovering anadromy—a capacity they had stilled for generations. Studies on Elwha steelhead continue, but initial findings suggest a remarkable story, one in which genetic potential outlasted many generations of entrapment. Anadromous species have ventured well beyond both former dam sites, with steelhead and Chinook traveling the farthest upstream. Throughout the watershed, scientists are observing diversity and changes in life strategy spurred by dam removal. Bull trout numbers have doubled, as they venture downstream into the estuary. Coho salmon rediscovered a lake previously walled off by dams, where their smolt are thriving.
The rewilding of the Elwha is a story of environmental justice, equal in scope to the scale of restoration. Salmon are at the heart of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s culture and economy, and tribal members were the first to protest the degradation of the river. As water rose behind the first dam, the reservoir inundated a site sacred to the tribe, believed to be the birthplace of the Klallam people. When the reservoir drained away, tribal members rediscovered the sacred place they’d lost a century earlier. This memory is now a physical place, visited by tribal members. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe continues to play a leading role in the restoration effort, working with Olympic National Park and numerous agencies to track and foster habitat recovery.
Tribal land encompasses the east side of the estuary, and for the first time in a century, the tribe is gaining, rather than losing land. Rivers move mountains to the sea. On a dammed river, sediment collects where water slows, filling reservoirs with gravel as the shoreline shrinks. Tribal elders remember harvesting shellfish near the estuary; however, cobblestones replaced this productive habitat over time, due to sediment trapped upstream. When the dams fell, these deposits began to flood downstream, rebuilding sandbars at the river’s mouth. The changing habitat quickly drew Dungeness crab and other species back to the near shore. Geologists tracking the growing shoreline have noted an unexpected benefit of dam removal: new sand deposits will help to buffer the shoreline against the impact of sea level rise.
Perhaps the most astonishing element of the Elwha restoration is how quickly ecosystem changes can be reversed. From sandbars stretching into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to changes in wildlife upstream, the whole watershed has responded more rapidly than expected. With salmon numbers growing steadily, scientists are tracking species associated with migrating fish. One study considered American dippers, the West’s only aquatic songbird. As salmon returned to the Elwha, these charismatic birds were found to have marine-derived nutrients in their diet, which in turn made them more likely to stay in salmon-rich territory year-round, and to double-brood in one season. The Elwha experiment is revealing the role of salmon in countless other species, terrestrial and aquatic. Taken together, studies throughout the valley underscore a simple message: Everything is connected. And with connection, comes life.
On the eve of dam removal in 2011, Senator Bill Bradley traveled across the country to speak about “The great gift of the Elwha: hope.” This September marks a decade since speeches gave way to the hard work of dam removal and river restoration. Hope in 2021 can feel elusive, particularly amid a season of climate disruption. Yet the first ten years of the Elwha experiment have been breathtaking in speed and scope, a testament to the power of nature and potential for renewal.
Olympic National Park left the buttresses of Glines Canyon Dam intact, as a monument to what was, and what can be. Today the remains of the dam offer a dizzying view. Two hundred feet down, amid jagged rocks, a river of light threads the canyon. Wind moves through the notch of the former dam, channeled by the valley. With wind on my face, and white water coursing below, I feel something beyond hope: fleeting pure joy, mixed with gratitude for the chance to bear witness. I long to speak to the river that has roared and whispered in my head for so many years, to ask the river a question: Is this what the world was like when it was young?
Jessica Plumb is an award-winning filmmaker and writer exploring the relationship between people and place. She is the producer, co-director and writer of the feature documentary Return of the River, chronicling the largest dam removal in history to date, on the Elwha River. The film was recognized with a dozen festival awards, including “Best Storytelling” by the International Wildlife Film Festival and “Best Writing” by Jackson Hole Science Media Awards. Plumb’s short environmental films and installations, described as video poetry, have screened in galleries and theaters around the world, most recently in the Seoul Museum of Art. Her writing has been published in a variety of outlets, including the Seattle Times op-ed pages and Mountaineer Magazine.