Meadville Tribune

February 5, 2012

Welcome back the real dam dynamo: Salmon

Don Skinner
Special to The Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — A signal event for the environment occurred on Maine’s Kennebeck River when two hydroelectric dams were breached as the first step toward their removal from the river. Those intent upon seeing the Kennebeck returned to its natural state were vindicated when, in June 2009, spawning Atlantic shad appeared at Winslow, about a hundred miles from the Atlantic, where the Sebasticook flows into the Kennbeck.

It was the first time that shad had been that far inland since completion of the 24-foot-high Edwards Dam in 1837. Traveling along with the shad were an estimated 1.2 million river herring, a fish equally vital both to commerce and to the marine food chain.

The event is less unique than it seems. Some 460 small dams — most of them privately owned — have been removed from American rivers in the years since the Kennebeck and its tributaries were reopened. Each of them, to one degree or another, once blocked migrating fish populations. Because many were small, they didn’t attract the attention of national media, and news of their breaching seldom went beyond local newspapers.

But they carry vital confirmation of a long-held assumption — one that was based more on hope than proof: that fish runs long hampered by unnatural obstacles (many to the point of evaporating altogether) could recover if given the opportunity to do so. Marine biologists have long argued that this was possible; but the American penchant to dam and channel waterways left few opportunities for the theory to be tested under real-world conditions. Now the evidence is coming in, in ways that don’t leave much to doubt.

Latest to attract attention is a two-dam removal project about as far from Maine you can get and still be in the continental United States; and those unacquainted with the Pacific Northwest are no more likely to have heard of them than of the Kennebeck’s now-vanished Edwards Dam. This project began in 1992 when then-President George W. Bush signed legislation into law authorizing the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River, which rises in Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington state and drains into the Straight of Juan de Fuca, an arm of the Pacific Ocean.

One hundred years ago, elders of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe told their grandchidren of a time when they could cross the Elwha River without wetting their feet by stepping on the backs of salmon. Whether their story was literally true may be subject to debate. But it wasn’t far off. Prior to the erection of the two dams — the Elwha in 1913 and Glines Canyon in 1927 — wildlife biologists numbered the spawning salmon population at 400,000. Behemoths weighing 100 pounds were typically harvested from the river. Because the dams (the first 105 feet high and the second 210 feet), were erected without fish ladders, those historic runs were reduced by 99 percent. The last census counted 3,000 fish.  

This didn’t simply result in the loss of a few cans of salmon from super-market shelves. Baby salmon, born in the upper reaches of ocean-bound rivers all over the world, migrate from their birth pools to the sea, there to mature for several years before being driven “home” by instinct as powerful as any in nature. With uncanny accuracy, they seek out not just their home rivers but the very pools in the upper reaches of those rivers where they were born. There, they spawn a new generation of salmon and die. Inbound toward this climactic event of their lives, they are food for a number of predators, including bear, eagles, osprey — and us. But even after they die, their decaying carcasses go on feeding some 130 species of wildlife. It is hard to find a single species that more effectively under girds the global food chain.

The removal of the Elwha River dams once again will open 70 miles of unspoiled river and spawning beds to pink, chinook, coho, chum and sockeye salmon, as well as other fish species. Now, thanks to experiences like that of Maine’s Kennebeck River, biologists may realistically anticipate that those numbers will rebound, even while they caution that it may take as long as 30 years for the river to return to its natural state. But the process has begun. Professional contractors began the heavy work last September, with completion expected in 2014.

And as a sidebar: given our current preoccupation with national unemployment — and the rhetoric of the current primary election debates — it should be added that the removal of the Elwha River dams will provide 760 jobs over two to three years, after which it is anticipated that the restored river will ultimately provide the foundation for 446 jobs in recreation and tourism.

Of course, removal of hydroelectric dams is not without considerable controversy, and for good reason. The very idea appears to fly in the face of our current desire to develop renewable energy sources, in which hydro-power plays a significant role — a motive at least as much embraced by environmentalists as anyone else. These are hard tradeoffs, and they aren’t easily resolved. Each case is unique, and likely to demand thoughtful and individual assessment.

In the case of the Elwha River dams, the tradeoff was hardly justified. They were erected to provide electrical power for a paper mill in the city of Port Angeles a few miles north and east on the Juan de Fuca Straights. Combined, they generated only 19 megawatts of energy (compared to 500 for an average coal-fired power plant). But the price we paid was the loss of a century of magnificent salmon runs.

One thing seems clear: the current readiness even to consider dam removal, and to wrestle with the tradeoffs involved, should put everyone on notice that the federal government no longer sees the construction of hydroelectric dams as a given, separable from related considerations such as the natural and economic benefits that will inevitably be lost. It is unfortunate that, as a country, we have taken so long to come to terms with the imperative of those equations.

Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at