Elwha dam removals: A river restored?

ELWHA RIVER, Wash. -- Four years after the largest dam removal project in history, the group in charge of restoring the Elwha shoreline is ready to open it up to the public.

On Saturday, Coastal Watershed Institute is inviting the public to see firsthand the Elwha's progress as a free-flowing river. But it'll take many more years before the river is truly restored.

The monumental task of taking down two dams obstructing the Elwha River near Port Angeles took two decades of planning and an additional three years to remove. As orca champions zero in on other fish barriers around the state, all eyes are on the Elwha to determine if removing dams can save endangered species.

We were there as a crew from the Coastal Watershed Institute took stock of endangered species along the Elwha shoreline.

"This is our monthly beach seining," said executive director Anne Shaffer. "It’s a part of our long-term monitoring of the Elwha estuary."

Shaffer has watched this nearshore transform in a project she’s been part of since the 1990s. It's a system that was blocked by dams for a century, starved of sediment, wood and therefore, fish.

"The numbers of fish went from hundreds of thousands to maybe two thousand, not many," she said as a fish leaped out of the water behind her.

"Isn’t that great?" she asked.

The fish out of water is further proof the system is no longer starved since the two dams came down.

"We saw fish respond literally within days of the dam removal starting," Shaffer said. "We saw a change in the fish composition immediately."

But she said real recovery will take much longer.

"It’s only four years and you have to understand, it was basically a catastrophic event," Shaffer said. "It rivaled the Mount St. Helens for sediment delivery in how abrupt it was."

To date, CWI's data shows hatcheries -- not wild fish -- are still driving the estuary community. It’s causing critics to question the true benefits of breaching or removing dams.

But Shaffer said it’s too early to draw conclusions. It’ll take generations of fish to see real wild results.

"Decades it will probably be before we get to a fully stabilized system and in the near shore we still have work to do," she said.

It's work that will continue even as the group opens the project area to the public.

"Every single month that we come out here has been different," said CWI intern Seren Weber while thigh-deep in the water searching for fish. "The way that the delta is shaped has changed drastically month to month."

It’s change that could be duplicated as the governor’s orca task force gets behind barrier removals like Middle Fork Nooksack and Pilchuck dams.

"As those opportunities arise, we should take them and get those dams out," Shaffer said. "It’s a very effective ecosystem restoration tool when it’s done properly."

But she said the best bet is not building them in the first place. There are proposed dams around Washington state, like a flood-control dam along the Chehalis River, currently subjected to an environmental review.

The task force did not address future dams but did recommend working with the state to come up with a list of barriers for potential removal by March 2019.