Ex-congressman who authored bill to raze Elwha River dams impressed by project
Former U.S. Rep. Al Swift sits in the plane that took him on an aerial inspection of the newly freed Elwha River. -- Photo copyright © 2012 by John Gussman
Photos copyright © 2012 by John Gussman
Glines Canyon Dam is seen last year, left, and after a blast last week freed the last of the water held behind the former 210-foot concrete dam on the Elwha River.
By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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Swift sponsored the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992, which led to the removal of the century-old Elwha Dam and 85-year-old Glines Canyon Dam in a nationally noted river and salmon restoration project.
The former Democratic congressman, an ex-broadcaster from Bellingham, represented the North Olympic Peninsula from 1979 to 1993, when redistricting moved the region from Swift's 2nd District to Norm Dicks' 6th District.
Swift, 76, retired from Congress in 1995. He now works as a principal in a Washington, D.C., political strategy firm and makes his home in Alexandria, Va.
Swift toured the Elwha Valley by land on Wednesday and by air on Thursday, getting his first glimpses of a free-flowing Elwha River.
Coincidental with Swift's visit, a controlled blast at Glines last Wednesday allowed the remaining pool of Lake Mills to drain, fully opening the Elwha River after nearly 100 years.
“What I learned on this trip that I didn't realize before is the incredible range of people who are working on this project,” Swift told the Peninsula Daily News.
“You tend to think you hire a contractor and he takes the dam down. What's the big deal?”
“Well, they've got scientists crawling all over this thing. The coordination of this project is mind-boggling.
“It is very impressive to watch how this is being done,” Swift said.
“I think people should be very pleased that it is being handled with such skill and competence and with interdisciplinary cooperation.”
Swift wasn't always so enthusiastic about removing the dams.
In the 1980s, he was skeptical about knocking out the 108-foot Elwha Dam even though it blocked fish passage five miles from the river mouth.
“My initial reaction was: 'Why do you take an existing dam down?'” Swift said.
“I'm of a generation in the Northwest where you build dams. That's what you did, and it was a good thing.
“So I had trouble dealing with this idea that maybe it was time to take some of them down.”
Swift changed his tune “slowly and pragmatically.”
“I was persuaded over time, particularly by the fact that this was a pristine river because the nature of the park surrounding it, and that you could get a really good payoff in terms of fish,” he said.
“I also came to believe that the damn dams were coming down whether we liked it, Port Angeles liked it or anybody else liked it.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials were “gung-ho” for dam removal, Swift recalled.
When the National Park Service joined the chorus, Swift told himself: “This is going to happen.”
“It may happen a number of ways, but ultimately if nothing else does it, the environmentalists will sue and they'll win,” he said.
Rather than letting the courts intervene, Swift worked on a law that would protect two main things:
■ The power supply to the mill served by the dams.
■ The water supply to the city of Port Angeles during dam removal.
At the time, Swift told the anti-dam-removal Port Angeles City Council “you're going to lose this one, and therefore what you need to do is concentrate on protecting the things most important to you, and they are these two things, I believe.”
The City Council opposed the project anyway.
“You're a little bitty community, and you've got a whole Congress that's eager to be environmental,” Swift recalled saying.
“This is where they can throw a big environmental vote and it doesn't cost them or their constituents a damn thing.”
Swift tried to convince the Port Angeles council that it was “not on the winning side.”
“I believe to this day that when I introduced the legislation, when it passed, that the majority of the people in Port Angeles were against it, which raises a very interesting ethical question that I often get asked by students,” Swift said.
“Is a congressman supposed to do what his people want, or is he supposed to do what he thinks is right?
“The answer is, it depends.”
Swift added: “In this case, I thought I was doing what was right for the community. I just had a little more experience than the City Council did in watching environmental issues at the federal level and seeking how they worked.”
When the North Olympic Peninsula became part of Dicks' congressional district, the Belfair Democrat took the baton and ran with it.
“It's kind of what was an ideal turnover,” Swift said of Dicks, who co-sponsored the Elwha River bill.
“I was on the right committee to be able to do the things that needed to be done. Then, after that, what you needed was money.
“So Dicks then comes in through redistricting — and he was quite senior and very effective on the Appropriations Committee — and I am sure that this thing would not be [removed] had it not been for Norm Dicks coming along and doing a lot of the work with the money.”
Swift correctly warned federal officials that the state of Washington would “not put a penny” into the project because the state wasn't proposing it.
“The environmentalists wanted it, but it was essentially the U.S. Interior Department that decided they wanted to take this dam out of the [Olympic] national park,” he said.
The original project cost was put at $29.5 million.
Twenty years and several studies later, the cost has ballooned to $325 million.
“Obviously it was a lot more than they anticipated,” Swift said of the federal funding.
Meanwhile, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley was “vitally important” to getting the same piece of legislation passed on the Senate side, Swift said.
“Bradley obviously had a great role to play in this,” he said.
At a dam-removal kickoff ceremony in Port Angeles in September 2011, Bradley said Swift was “tenacious” in getting the legislation through the House.
“At the time, I had come to understand what this could mean in terms of restoring a major fish run, measured nationally,” Swift said.
“Learning that they're already seeing fish where there haven't been fish in 100 years is just very impressive.”
The last remnants of the Elwha Dam were gone in early March, fewer than six months after contractor Barnard Construction of Montana began the demolition.
The once-210-foot Glines Canyon Dam, 9 miles upstream, has been reduced to a 50-foot waterfall, with the former Lake Mills reservoir behind it almost gone.
Swift said the citizens of Port Angeles have already benefited from a new, federally funded water treatment facility on the Elwha River that was designed for heavy sediment loads.
“[The project] has had economic advantages for Port Angeles, which is a town that Lord knows needs it,” Swift said.
“When they're done, Port Angeles should be left economically at least where it was when they started, and very possibly better off.”
“After being here today, I'm convinced this is going to work.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: October 27. 2012 5:39PM