A River’s Return

Today’s Seattle Times has a story about efforts to start rehabilitating Washington State’s Elwha River in advance of dam removal scheduled to begin after 2010. The local Klallam Indian tribe has been placing hundreds of spawned-out salmon carcasses into the river above the dams to mimic conditions of anadromous fish runs.

Quote: “We are looking at how it affects the freshwater food web, and is it stimulating algae growth and creating food for invertebrates,” said Sarah Morley, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric research ecologist in Seattle who developed the project.

The Elwha was one of the Northwest’s great salmon rivers before it was illegally dammed in the early 20th century. Five species of salmon returned to the river each year, including legendary chinook in excess of 100 pounds. (To learn more about the Elwha and its salmon, check out Jim Lichatowich’s definitive account of declining Northwest salmon runs, Salmon Without Rivers.)

As with the eruption of Mount St. Helens, scientists have a golden opportunity to study the before-and-after effects of a major environmental event. They also need to prepare the river for what hopefully will be an epic “comeback” story.

What’s so cool about the impending dam removal is that most of the watershed won’t require the sort of restoration that is usually necessary in such projects. The Elwha above the dams is in pristine condition (except for air-borne pollution we read about earlier this week) and is protected by Olympic National Park. The river is ready and waiting for salmon and steelhead to once again migrate up its waters. Bring it on!

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