International Recognition for Historic Elwha River Restoration

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The collaborative work of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to restore the Elwha River of Washington, USA, was recognized as a world-renowned restoration project during the awarding of the 2016 Thiess International Riverprize.

This article is part of the October-December 2016 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

A small plaque or award stands on a table, and vases filled with flowers sit behind it.

Plaque recognizing the Elwha River Restoration Project as one of three finalists for the 2016 Thiess International Riverprize. Photo credit: International River Foundation.

The collaborative work of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to restore the Elwha River of Washington, USA, was recognized as a world-renowned restoration project during the awarding of the 2016 Thiess International Riverprize.

Riverprize is an annual award given by the International River Foundation to recognize and support premier examples of river restoration management. The 2016 award was presented during an award ceremony at the 19th International River Symposium September 14, 2016, in New Delhi, India.

The Elwha River was recognized as one of three Riverprize finalists for its unprecedented approach to restoring salmon populations through the largest orchestrated dam removal project in history. The USGS has been a major partner in the project, providing scientific monitoring and analyses of the fish, waters, and sediment before, during, and after dam removal (see “USGS science supporting the Elwha River Restoration Project”). The Elwha River Restoration Project encompasses numerous restoration elements, including fisheries management, reseeding and replanting, water management and treatment, sediment management, and educational activities. These coordinated activities came after decades of debate, planning, and collaboration.

“The Elwha River Restoration is a shining example of what can happen when diverse groups work together to recognize rivers for their many contributions to our culture, economy, and environment,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “It was powerful to witness the largest dam removal and ecosystem restoration project in history, and to see endangered salmon, trout, and other fish once again regain access to their historic migration and spawning habitat along the Elwha River.”

A man and a woman present awards to two men, the woman is shaking hands with one man.

USGS scientists Jonathan Warrick and Jeff Duda receiving Riverprize recognition in New Delhi, India. Photo credit: International Riverfoundation.

A man sits on a personal watercraft which is running slowly on the water near shore.

Personal watercraft fitted with sonar and GPS were among the tools used by USGS scientists to map the bottom of shallow coastal waters near the mouth of the Elwha River. This shot was taken August 25, 2011, during a survey conducted just a few weeks before dam removal began.

Two large dams on the Elwha River were removed between 2011 and 2014, resulting in the release of millions of cubic meters of sediment downstream and the reopening of fish passage upstream, past former dam sites into protected habitats of Olympic National Park. The project now serves as a living laboratory of cultural and ecosystem restoration as the salmon return to the river.

View looks at the downstream side of a tall dam that is being removed by heavy equipment, water spills out from gaps.

Webcam photo taken February 7, 2012, during deconstruction of the Glines Canyon Dam by a process called “notching down.” The dam was built in 1927 in Olympic National Park. Photo credit: National Park Service.

Glines canyon dam removal showing notching and spillway.  Site of the Elwha River Restoration project.

Glines canyon dam removal showing notching and spillway.  Site of the Elwha River Restoration project. Image available at Olympic National Park flickr site.

“Elwha River Restoration is a historic achievement for the Department of the Interior and the Tribe that could not have been accomplished without the help of our many partners, and we are very honored to have been chosen as a finalist for the Thiess International Riverprize,” said Olympic National Park Acting Superintendent Rachel Spector.

A woman crouches on dry river stones near the carcass of the skull and spine of a salmon.

USGS geologist Amy East was delighted to observe a Chinook salmon carcass upstream from two dams recently removed from the Elwha River in Washington State. River restoration has allowed salmon to reach upstream spawning grounds for the first time in more than a century. Photo credit: Joshua Logan, USGS

Re-vegetation in the river valley at the Elwha River restoration site.

Re-vegetation in the river valley at the Elwha River restoration site. Image available at Olympic National Park flickr site.

“In completing this project, we are able to give a gift of renewed salmon populations to this great river and to future generations,” stated Robert Elofson, River Restoration Director for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. “We are honored to be recognized as world leaders in river restoration.”

The three finalists for the 2016 Riverprize included the Segura River of Spain, and the Niagara and Elwha Rivers of the USA (see “Niagara River team wins 2016 Thiess International Riverprize”). The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper project was awarded the Riverprize.

Revegetation planting day at former Lake Mills reservoir as Glines Canyon Dam is removed.

Revegetation planting day at former Lake Mills reservoir as Glines Canyon Dam is removed. Image available at Olympic National Park flickr site.

Visitors at Glines Canyon East Abutment in Olympic National Park, the location of the Elwha River Restoration project.

Visitors at Glines Canyon East Abutment in Olympic National Park, the location of the Elwha River Restoration project. Image available at Olympic National Park flickr site.

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