As the Elwha comes to life, hope for nationwide river restoration

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Ten years ago, demolition began at the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River in Washington, DC, in what remains the largest dam removal and river restoration in history. Since backhoes and dynamite destroyed Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon, this beautiful aquamarine river has rebounded in a remarkable way. Now flowing freely from the Olympic Mountains to the Salish Sea, the Elwha River again supports salmon runs along its length and a rejuvenated web of life, from bears to eagles to orcas.

The history of the Elwha contains powerful lessons for the future of our country’s rivers, and it is an inspiration to advance potentially transformative bipartisan river restoration proposals before Congress and the Biden administration as early as now.

One of the most important lessons from the Elwha is the power of Indigenous leadership in river restoration efforts. The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe were the primary advocates for the removal of the Elwha River dams, and their knowledge and support was instrumental in the ultimate success of the project. Since the fall of the Elwha dams, other tribes have had great success in restoring their rivers. The Yakama Nation was instrumental in restoring the White Salmon River in Washington by removing the Condit Dam. The Penobscot Nation played a key role in removing dams on the Penobscot River in Maine. Yurok, Karuk, Klamath and other tribes lead decades-long effort to remove four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California to restore salmon runs and water quality – dam demolition due to start in 2023.

Since the fall of the dams on the Elwha, the movement to restore our country’s rivers has grown tremendously. More than 800 dams have been destroyed in the past 10 years, with states like Pennsylvania, California and Michigan leading the way. During this time, many communities and stakeholders have followed tribal leadership to understand the multidimensional benefits of dam removal that exacerbate our climate and environmental justice crises in this country.

The need to remove harmful, obsolete and dangerous dams is more important than ever. Climate change is putting unprecedented pressure on our rivers, with increasing flooding threatening potentially fatal dam failures. More than 20 dams failed in the Carolinas during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and the Edenville Dam in Michigan failed last year, forcing thousands to evacuate. Elsewhere, soaring temperatures and declining flows make the clean, cold waters of free-flowing rivers essential if we are to protect fish and wildlife and biodiversity vital to native ecosystems.

So where does the river restoration movement go from here? Congress and the Biden administration are currently considering several proposals. The bipartite 21st Dams of the Century Act – legislation negotiated by conservation groups, dam safety advocates and the hydropower industry – would invest billions to remove, renovate and rehabilitate dams across the country. It would restore 10,000 miles of free-flowing rivers by removing 1,000 dams, improve dam safety and chart the course for hydropower in our country’s energy future. The Senate Infrastructure Bill also includes key provisions for river restoration.

In addition, urgent action is needed to remove four federal dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington in order to save the endangered salmon from extinction and honor treaties and commitments to Native American tribes. The snake was historically the largest producer of salmon in the Columbia River Basin, but the numbers are now at historically low levels, in large part because of the dams. Area leaders, U.S. Representatives Mike Simpson, R-Idaho and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., And Oregon Governor Kate Brown, respond to appeals from the Nez Perce Tribe, Confederate Tribes on the Indian Reservation from Umatilla, The Yakama Nation, Upper Snake River Tribes and other tribes in the Northwest and the country, to speak out to recover salmon, invest in clean energy, and strengthen infrastructure and l economy of the region. We need other elected leaders, including the Senses. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Governor Jay Inslee to step up and seize this opportunity.

Nationally, it is vital that we rebalance our need for the services provided by dams with our need for clean water and healthy rivers. Congress and the Biden administration must prioritize and advance both the 21st Century Dams Act and Lower Snake River Dam Removal. Perhaps the most important lesson from Elwha is that rivers are wonderfully resilient and will support us – and all of life – if we have the collective courage and vision to release them.


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