PORT ANGELES, Wash (Reuters) - As a child, Adeline Smith, an elder in the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe who grew up along the Elwha River, saw how a hulking concrete dam choked off one of the most prolific salmon runs on earth.
Some 300,000 salmon, some weighing up to 99 pounds, once migrated from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a Pacific Ocean outlet, into the Elwha River to spawn and die.
"They are killing the fish, and they are taking away from our culture and our eating the fish," Smith, 94, told Reuters.
Her testimony helped spur an act of Congress, the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992, signed by President George H.W. Bush, which sought to return the roughly 45-mile river to its free-flowing state.
Some 25 years later, Smith and 100 tribal members joined Washington Governor Chris Gregoire and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to watch as the first concrete was scooped away from the Elwha Dam over the weekend as part of the largest dam removal in U.S. history.
The dam removal includes the Elwha's two dams -- the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and the 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam. It will cost roughly $27 million and take three years, said Don Laford, the project's construction manager.
The Elwha Dam, finished in 1913, helped bring electricity to the nascent milling town of Port Angeles. But it was built without a so-called fish ladder, a modern tool that allows migrating fish like salmon to traverse dams. Instead, salmon were forced to stop at the concrete wall and fruitlessly swim in circles looking for passage.
Historic salmon populations numbered more than 300,000 fish, according to tribal and park services estimates. They have fallen to roughly 3,000. The restoration project hopes to bring back fish to that initial level.
Among the custom-built dam's other shortcomings were its minimal production levels by today's standards, generating just 40 percent of the power needed to run the mill in Port Angeles and requiring expensive custom parts for repairs.
"There are easier and less expensive methods to generate power," Laford said.
DECADES TO RETURN TO NATURAL STATE
The entire river restoration project has a $325 million price tag, including new power sources, water treatment plants, re-vegetation, and other improvements.
One is the safe removal of enormous amounts of sediment that has accumulated over the years at the upstream end of the reservoir and could kill fish downstream if introduced too quickly to the river, Olympic National Park spokesman Dave Reynolds said.
"In the Pacific Northwest we have a strong connection to salmon," Reynolds said. "It will take decades, but the river, and its prolific salmon runs, will return to its natural state."
Smith remembers as a child the antipathy for those fishing the Elwha solely for sport, rather than food.
"That is what mostly antagonized a lot of the natives here, not in my era but the era before. Being as we were Indians, I don't believe they allowed us to even buy a license to fish. We were just completely cut out of it," she said.
Smith also remembered big fish kills that would happen when dam operators stopped water flows.
"They shut the dam off and barely let the water trickle down and killed a lot of fish -- there were piles of fish," she said. "We would see all of this fish and scoop them up in a bucket of water and bring them down to the river and put them back in. So many thousands died."
The Klallam Tribe, which means "the strong people," first challenged the dam's relicensing for safety reasons in the 1970s and then because it had no fish passages.
The return of five species of Pacific salmon will revitalize some 137 other species -- from fly larvae to black bears and eagles -- who live above and below salmon on the food chain.
But the restoration is not all about food. The Elwha Dam's reservoir, Lake Aldwell, buried the tribe's sacred creation site.
"Tribal members will have access to sacred sites now inundated by water and cultural traditions can be reborn," Reynolds said.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston)