Outlook good on restoring salmon runs in Elwha River
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Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Robert Elofson, river restoration director for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, delivers an update on the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams Thursday evening in Port Angeles.

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — After the dams are gone and sediment levels return to equilibrium, between 300,000 and 400,000 salmon will return to the pristine waters of the Elwha River, Lower Elwha ­Klallam River Restoration Director Robert Elofson said.

Efforts to restore the legendary salmon run are ahead of schedule, Elofson told a group of about 20 at the Elwha Klallam Heritage Training Center on Thursday night.

“There's only about 5,000 salmon coming back [now], and they expect between 300,000 and 400,000 salmon coming once the river is restored,” Elofson said.

The 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam are being taken down as part of a $325 million federal project to restore the river's ecosystem and salmon runs.

It is the largest dam removal project in the U.S. to date, Elofson said.

Last summer, about 600 coho salmon were released into tributaries between the two dams — the Little River and Indian Creek — to shield them from high sediment loads coming down the main stem of the river.

“It worked out very well,” Elofson said.

“About half of those came back over the lower dam and returned, but half of them stayed up there.”

300 coho

The estimated 300 coho that remained between the dams produced about 100 salmon redds, or nests.

Elofson reported 60 redds in the Little River and 30 in Indian Creek.

“Hopefully when the dams are taken out, they'll return up there and spawn,” he said.

Also last summer, 20 chinook salmon were released into Lake Mills.

A few of those fish went upstream to spawn.

Deconstruction of both dams began amid fanfare in September. The project was covered by Al Jazeera and European media outlets as well as national media.

Barnard Construction and its subcontractors quickly dismantled the top sections of both dams.

Sixty-four vertical feet of the Elwha Dam has been removed — along with the penstocks. The rest of the powerhouse is being taken down this week.

River-related work stopped during a six-week fish migration window that ended the first of the year.

Work is limited during such fish migratory periods, which last about two months at a time and take up five to six months of the year.

The only portions of the lower dam — the Elwha Dam — remaining are along the two former spillways, now used as interchanging river channels.

The Elwha Dam is scheduled to be fully removed in early 2013.

Eight miles upstream, about 40 vertical feet of the Glines Canyon Dam has been removed.

Demolition of that dam is scheduled to be finished around early 2014.

Fish hatchery

The new fish hatchery at the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe and the Department of Fish and Wildlife rearing channel will preserve the Elwha salmon from lethal sediment levels, Elofson said.

Elofson said it will take three to seven years for the sediment in the river to reach a natural equilibrium.

Elofson described the $16.4 million new fish hatchery as “state of the art.”

“It probably is the best one in Washington state now,” he said.

The new hatchery was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

It is about three times larger than the tribe's old hatchery, which was built in 1978.

“The [new] hatchery is actually working much better than we thought it would,” Elofson said.

“We were worried that we'd have to run the old hatchery for a couple years for the salmon returning there, but almost all of the salmon we put into the river have gone to the new one because we have more water flowing from it.”

Elofson said the tribe has always had close cultural ties with the animals that it hunted and fished for thousands of years.

“In order to have something to hunt and fish for the next year, we had to treat them with respect,” he said.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at rob.ollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: January 28. 2012 5:31PM
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