Taking down the dams
After a century’s absence, the beavers have been moving back into what was once the floor of Lake Mills on the Elwha River in the northwest corner of Washington state, USA. And they’ve been building their own little dams, which is, of course, ironic. The Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, which were removed in 2011 and 2014 respectively, are considered the world’s largest dam removal project to date. A number of other tribes have been inspired by the these removals to bring down fish-blocking dams on their lands as well, including along the Snake River and the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.
Together, America’s two million dams block access for fish to more than a million kilometres of river. By 2030, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates 80% of these dams will be beyond their 50-year lifespans. Given their age and condition, as well as their effect on declining fish stocks, one solution might be to simply remove them. But bringing down a dam is a big job, is costly and takes time.
When the Elwha River dams came down, it was the culmination of decades of successful partnerships between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and dozens of other local and national organisations. Today, those partnerships continue to support the tribe in righting historic wrongs.
The Elwha Dam was built in 1910 to provide electricity to attract new settlers, ignoring a state law that stated dams must allow fish to pass. At the time, no one consulted the Lower Elwha Klallam people, whose culture rests on the salmon that would be blocked by the dams. Despite protests, the construction went ahead. Although hatcheries were added in an attempt to keep salmon populations afloat, every year the fish born in the hatcheries would try to return to the spawning grounds, banging their heads on the dam in a desperate attempt to get upstream.
It wasn’t until January 1986 that things began to change; that was when the tribe filed a motion to stop the relicensing of the dams, arguing they prevented them from exercising their treaty rights because they blocked fish passage. Studies had shown building fish passages wouldn’t effectively restore the salmon runs, so it was decided to take down the dams. Still, it took an Act of Congress and US$325 million to complete the job.
Despite setbacks, the restoration has made great progress. Tribal member Cameron Macias describes one of the first big changeshe noticed on the drained landscape the she visited back in 2016: “The entire lake bed at Lake Mills was just covered in lupine, and lupine is so good for so many reasons. It’s just beautiful. And it’s native,” she says. “Now, [in 2021, the landscape] is so incredibly dense with willows and alders. At this point, there are a bunch of conifers growing up among those different trees as well. And so we’re seeing plant succession,” she says, referring to the healthy process of how plant communities change over time after a disturbance.
“That really empowered the tribes in Washington to become, essentially, a co-manager with the state,” Mike McHenry, the Tribe’s fisheries habitat manager told Yes! Solutions Journalism. In essence, the tribal ancestors paid for their descendants to have harvestable fish today by ceding lands to settlers. Because the dams prevented that, the Elwha had legal standing to bring down the dams.
There are almost 400 treaties between Indigenous tribes and the United States, each with different terms. No two tribes are the same. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a call where somebody wants the ‘Indigenous perspective’. It’s not this ‘one thing’,” says Julie Thorstenson, executive director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. “They’re all different, but the number one thing that they have in common is that they’re all underfunded.”
Indeed, the Elwha tribe relies on grants for much of its work, both before the dams went down and afterward for tasks such as protecting fish during the dam removals, revegetating the newly drained landscape, and monitoring for signs of plant, animal, and insect recolonisation. The National Park Service alone has provided nearly US$3 million in funding over the past nine years for restoration work, with funding set to expire in 2022. But full recovery could take far longer, up to 30 years, according to a fish restoration plan. “It would be really bad if funding just ended in 2023, and we are working to ensure that does not happen,” McHenry wrote in an email.
Thorstenson says, “We hustle. I’m really always amazed at how innovative tribes are.” At the same time, she says, “Grants don’t promote capacity-building, and they don’t promote self-governance, which is what tribes are really striving for.”
Though the Elwha always had legal standing to challenge the dams, it wasn’t until the tribe won over the public through outreach and education — such as the annual ceremony of traveling in traditional canoes to visit different Nations around Puget Sound — that they received enough public support to remove the dams and form fruitful new partnerships, says Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe chair Frances Charles.
Despite setbacks, the restoration has made great progress. Tribe member Cameron Macias describes one of the first big changes she noticed on the drained landscape she visited back in 2016: “The entire lake bed at Lake Mills was just covered in lupine, and lupine is so good for so many reasons. It’s just beautiful. And it’s native,” she says. “Now, [in 2021, the landscape] is so incredibly dense with willows and alders. At this point, there are a bunch of conifers growing up among those different trees as well. And so we’re seeing plant succession,” she says, referring to the healthy process of how plant communities change over time after a disturbance.
The salmon are recovering, too. According to McHenry, the chinook, steelhead, and bull trout are all recolonising well. Coho have been a bit slower, and the tribe is still waiting for chum and pink salmon to come back in good numbers. They continue working to improve the habitat for newly returning fish, such as placing logs and boulders into the river to create pools where young fish can thrive; there are more than thirty of these logjams now in place. Kim Sager-Fradkin, the tribe’s wildlife biologist, has been measuring how nutrients from the ocean are making their way into birds and river otters further upstream via the migration of salmon, as well as measuring how wildlife are using the newly available habitat.
Even though full recovery will take decades, says Charles, she says she isn’t worried. Her biggest piece of advice to the other tribes working on dam removal and restoration is simple: “Don’t give up. It took 100 years for these dams to be taken out. And we’ve lost so many of our elders through the process. But we know they’re looking down upon us and really grinnin’ with pride.”
ABOVE A view of the lower Elwha River dam site, before (2010) and after (2016)
PHOTO The Seattle Times