Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park

U.S. hopes dams' demolition will let salmon return

April 12, 2010, 3:51 pm

They were known as June Hogs - 100-pound salmon that, when stood on end, were taller than a man.

Up until a century ago, they returned annually to the Elwha River on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula in runs so huge homesteaders reported the river turned into a wiggling mass from bank to bank. One count placed their number at 392,000.

Then, two dams were built across the river, and the spawning grounds were blocked, giving the fish less than five miles of river to breed. Today fewer than 3,000 fish return to the Elwha.

That's about to change.

In what would be the largest dam removal project ever in the United States, the federal government last week requested bids to demolish the two structures - the 105-foot Elwha Dam, finished in 1913, and the Glines Canyon Dam, twice as tall as the Elwha Dam, finished in 1927.

The dams won't be blown up, but dismantled over roughly three years so the 19 million cubic yards of silt, gravel and rock behind them can be flushed downstream gradually.

The project will cost more than $300 million. The cost of removing the dams - $60 million to $70 million - is only a portion of the price tag.

Once the dams are down, it may take 10 years to re-establish the runs, but officials are determined the fish will return. Some will be flown by helicopter to the upper reaches of the Elwha watershed. To supplement the meager number of native fish, others will be raised in a nearby hatchery and added to the runs. Eventually, the runs are expected to become wild.

Scientists say if the salmon runs can't be restored on the Elwha, they can't be restored anywhere.

More than 85 percent of the river's salmon habitat is in the Olympic National Park, remote backcountry even now barely touched by man.

"I have no doubt this will work," said Brian Winter, the Elwha Project manager for the National Park Service.

Read more at kansascity.com.