The Elwha Dams, Part 3 (historical series) — Fisheries, dams linked in 1980s
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Elinor Chittenden holds a steelhead caught in 1907, before the Elwha Dam was constructed. --Photo courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma
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A schematic for the Elwha Dam, compiled from old documents following passage of the Elwha restoration act in the 1990s.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Work to remove the two Elwha River dams begins this week — with special events to commemorate the beginning of the river restoration project.

In conjunction, Port Angeles writer/historian John Kendall continues his look-back at the dams, their role in North Olympic Peninsula development and their legacy as they come down.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series can be found by searching the word “historical” in the search engine on the home page.

By John Kendall

For Peninsula Daily News

During the 1980s, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and federal fisheries agencies began to link Elwha fisheries restoration with the relicensing process.

“It had become apparent that the dams and fisheries could not coexist, and the tribe was the first party to move for dam removal,” wrote Russell Busch, attorney for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, in a 2001 law review.

In 1986, the tribe pressed for removal of both dams; environmental groups joined in.

In 1988, they asked Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to step aside because, they argued, the upper Glines Canyon Dam is in a national park, so FERC lacked relicensing power.

In 1990, FERC disagreed, reasoning that because the upper dam was licensed before the park was created, it retained the power to relicense.

The tribe, fisheries groups and environmentalists went to the U. S. Court of Appeals to set up a legal showdown versus Crown Zellerbach, FERC and the hydropower industry.

The showdown in court never happened. Congress’ 1992 Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act rendered it all moot.

Before the act, in December 1991, congressional sources informed the mill that legislation would be drafted to remove the dams from the relicensing process, acquire them and remove them.

“They said we had the option of participating in the process, protecting our interests, or not,” said Orville Campbell, Crown Zellerbach Corp. resident engineer in Port Angeles at the time.

“We obviously opted to work with the congressional staff and were able to ensure that there were several things in the legislation that were necessary to protect the [Port Angeles paper] mill.

“First, that the mill would be assured of getting energy that it needed to continue operating. So they determined that the mill would receive from the Bonneville Power Administration the amount of energy that the projects generated and it would get that for 40 years, and the rate would be the priority firm rate.

“The other thing was the purchase price of the projects, and that was determined to be $29.5 million.”

For Crown Zellerbach, “it was the best deal we could get,” added Campbell. “And probably the only deal we could get.”

Elwha act signed

The big move toward dam removal became official Oct. 24, 1992, when President George H.W. Bush signed the act.

According to the act, one person had the power to decide the fate of the dams.

The secretary of the interior was to answer this question: Regarding the dams, what is the best way to restore the Elwha river fishery and ecosystem? He was to issue a report by Jan. 1, 1994.

No surprise. He chose removal of both dams.

Done deal? Not yet.

“There was a new problem: We had an act that specified what was supposed to happen, except that it was all contingent on Congress putting up the money,” Campbell said.

Now there were “new forces that came forth in Port Angeles and in Congress to impede the appropriation of funds,” said Campbell. “They were a couple years too late.”

“Back in the 1990s, most local people realized it was a poor deal,” recalled Marv Chastain, who lives near Port Angeles, of REAL (Rescue Elwha Area Lakes), which operated from 1992 until about 1997.

“We had no representation in D. C.,” Chastain said.

“We never had a chance. Once the government bought the dams, we realized there was no sense to continue the fight.”

Now he called the removal of the dams “a totally wasteful program.”

In 1995, “Sen. Slade Gorton [of Washington] put in the first million bucks, then he increased it in 1996 and ’97, and in 1998 [President Bill] Clinton threw in some money — so by 1999, the owners of the dams was assured it was going to get the $29.5 million and some money for the Park Service to create a purchase and sale agreement,” Campbell said.

In 1998, “the Clinton administration recognized that it needed to participate in the process,” Campbell added.

On Feb. 29, 2000, the purchase and sale agreement closed — Uncle Sam now owned both dams.

“It was then that I realized the projects would finally come out,” Campbell said.

And then, the fish

What about the Elwha fish – those legendary 100-pound salmon?

Fishermen — Native American and non-Native — have been asking that question for 111 years.

If dam builder Tom Aldwell ever asked that question, his answer was lost in history.

Aldwell’s plans for the lower Elwha Dam did not include any way for the fish to get up or around the dam to let fish spawn.

On Sept. 11, 1911, the local game warden wrote his superiors in Olympia about what he saw:

“Thousands of salmon at the foot of the dam where they were jumping continually trying to get up the flume,” but the force of water cascading out of the flume threw the fish back down the river.

Thus began a dialogue between Aldwell and fisheries officials that lasted for three years.

In the end, Aldwell was more persistent in doing as little as possible as fisheries officials were in seeking options to protect the fishery.

A publication of the state Department of Fisheries summed it up this way:

“In the early days of the construction of the Elwha Dam, consideration of the fish population or of fish-passing facilities were certainly not as carefully weighed then as they are today.

“Although the Washington State Legislature passed in 1888-1890 requiring the builders of a dam in any stream utilized by migratory fish to provide the dam with a fishway passage, it was evident that no serious consideration of fish passage facilities was incorporated in the initial planning of the structure — especially of the Elwha Dam.”

Later, the Stream Development Division of the Department of Fisheries compiled a report. In it was this paragraph:

“In interviewing Mr. Thomas T. Aldwell — still a resident of Port Angeles — he recalls some discussion and negotiation took place prior to the time of construction of the Elwha Dam relative to the handling of the migratory runs.

“These discussions, it is reported, were with the State Fisheries Commission — the agency which in those days was charged with the management and jurisdiction over all food and game fishery resource in the state of Washington.

“However, Mr. Aldwell did not recall the exact nature of these discussions and there was no correspondence or documentary evidence of such negotiations prior to the start of construction of the dam.”

Official visit

On Oct, 23, 1911, the superintendent of state fish hatcheries visited the building site and met the superintendent.

“I instructed [Aldwell] as to the manner of installing an effective fishway,” he wrote his superiors.

“This, he assured me, will be done as soon as the dam is built high enough to make the fishway effective.”

During the year the dam was completed, 1914, a new law contended that if a dam was too high for a fish ladder or otherwise impractical for any type of fish passage, then the director of fish and game could approve a “fish hatchery and hatchery residence.”

So the state urged Aldwell that if a fishway is not practical, why not build a fish hatchery?

In March 1914, the state warned Aldwell:

“We could not afford to have another year’s run of salmon wasted as was the one this year.”

Aldwell promised to send the state a deed to land to build a hatchery. He sent a letter and blueprint, but no deed.

No fishway? No hatchery?

How about men with nets at the foot of the dam, then lift the fish over the dam with those nets?

That was a new suggestion from Aldwell’s lawyer to the state.

“[It] would relieve the company of the expense of constructing and maintaining a fish ladder over the dam,” he wrote.

Then a deal on Aug. 11, 1914: Aldwell would build a hatchery.

According to the agreement, this “will avoid the necessity and expense to the said Olympic Power Co. of the erection of a fishway or ladder over said dam.” Later state law was changed to allow the option of hatcheries for dams instead of just fishways.

A hatchery was built, but the state never got deed to the site.

“By 1922, the hatchery on the Elwha was abandoned,” wrote Lynda Mapes in Breaking Ground.

“So few fish struggled back to the face of the dam that the department simply gave up.

“Aldwell had the last laugh. He never even deeded the hatchery site to the state as promised, and paid only $2,500 toward the construction of a hatchery that failed within a decade.”

In 1946, the fire hazard was razed.

Wednesday: The Klallams along the Elwha River.

Last modified: September 13. 2011 2:26AM
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