TWO obscure hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River, a virtually unknown waterway in western Washington state, are being considered for removal in Congress this week.
Proponents say their removal will not only return the river to its original pristine state, but also restore a once-important salmon fishery.
Opponents are concerned that this project may set a precedent that could lead to the removal of other hydroelectric dams throughout the country.
These two privately owned dams are blocking salmon runs on the Elwha River, while producing electricity needed for the Daishowa Pulp Mill in nearby Port Angeles.
The Glines Canyon Dam, located inside Olympic National Park, was built in 1926 before the park existed. Today, Olympic officials and conservation groups argue that a hydroelectric dam inside a national park is not compatible with the area's goals.
For one thing, it and the Elwha Dam, located immediately outside the park five miles from the river's mouth, do not have facilities to allow anadromous salmon passage to the Elwha's 244 square miles of watershed.
"Of the nine stocks of salmon native to the Elwha River, the sockeye are basically extinct," says Will Ging, a spokesman for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The other stocks are severely depleted with some on the verge of extinction, other fisheries officials say.
A federal study concluded that it was unlikely that salmon runs could be restored to the upper Elwha River with the dams in place. This became the catalyst behind the current drive to remove them.
"The salmon ... have the best chance of restoration to a healthy population if the dams are removed," Mr. Ging says.
Fisheries experts estimate salmon populations could grow to 50,000 to 400,000 once restoration efforts are complete.
Whether the removal of the Elwha dams will affect similar hydroelectric projects, it is hard to say.
"Members of the Public Power Council are afraid that the removal of the two hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River could set a precedent and lead to the removal of other hydroelectric dams" around the country, says Marty Kanner, lobbyist representing the Public Power Council in Washington.
But Ging says, "I don't think so. I don't know of any other [hydroelectric] project where the watershed is 90 to 95 percent inside a national park."
Catherine Hoffman, management assistant for Olympic National Park, agrees. "This is a unique situation," she says.
The operating license for the Glines Canyon Dam expired in 1976. It has been operating with one-year extensions since then.
James River Corporation, the current owner of the two hydroelectric projects, has a 40-year operating license application pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
James River Corporation purchased the pulp mill and dams from Crown Zellerbach in 1986. The pulp mill was acquired by Daishowa America Company Ltd., a Japanese corporation, in 1987.
A coalition of environmental groups, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, Seattle Audubon Society, and Olympic Park Associates has filed a lawsuit challenging FERC's authority to grant an operating license for a dam inside a national park.
A decision on the suit, on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, is not expected before year's end, the group's attorney said.
If the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Brock Adams (D) of Washington, Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, and Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, is passed, the lawsuit will fade away, the lawyer said.
The act is scheduled for review by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Aug. 12.
Robert Hartley, spokesman for Daishowa America Company Ltd., said, "Daishowa's main concern with regard to the dam removal is the company's needs for replacement power at a reasonable cost." The dams supply 40 percent of the mill's power needs.
The "two dams are going to be removed at a time the region needs as much electricity as it can generate because of the growth in the region and there isn't any surplus power," Mr. Kanner says. Because of the drought in the Northwest, hydroelectricity potential is down.
Robert Morgan, vice president of James River's Wauna mill in Clatskanie, Ore., and former manager of the Daishowa pulp mill, said his company believes relicensing of the dams is the best thing that could happen from an industrialist's point of view.