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GUEST BLOG: The Elwha, Bringing a river back to life

October 4, 2011
Filed in: Events

National Communications director of American Rivers Amy Kober takes us behind the scenes of the Elwha Dam removal and its effects on the state and river.

A chunk of Elwha Dam sits on my desk. It looks like just another hunk of gray concrete, but when I see it I think of a blue-green rushing river, big spawning salmon, and lush old-growth forests deep within Olympic National Park.

I was lucky – and humbled — to be there when removal of the two dams on Washington’s Elwha River began a couple weeks ago. It’s the biggest dam removal project in history – the river’s Glines Canyon Dam is 210 feet tall. Tearing down these dams will restore more than 70 miles of habitat for salmon and steelhead in the Elwha and its tributaries.

American Rivers and our partners worked for more than 25 years to restore the Elwha – so this is a wonderful victory. We will get to watch a river come back to life before our eyes.

Watch a video about this inspiring river restoration effort.

Here are some commonly asked questions about the Elwha.

Why is the Elwha River special, and why is this dam removal significant?

The Elwha flows from the heart of Olympic National Park to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Puget Sound. Eighty percent of the river is protected within the park, so most of it is wild and pristine. The river was once home to all six species of Pacific salmon and steelhead and has been home to the Klallam people for millennia.

This is the world’s biggest dam removal, and one of biggest and most significant river restoration efforts we’ve ever seen. We will witness a river coming back to life, with great benefits for salmon runs, the tribe and community. The lessons we learn on the Elwha will inspire other river restoration efforts around the country.

How have the dams harmed the river?

There are two dams on the river – Elwha Dam (108 feet tall, built in 1913 just five miles from the river’s mouth) and Glines Canyon Dam (210 feet tall, built in 1927, several miles upstream of Elwha Dam). Both dams were built without fish passage, and completely blocked salmon from historic habitat.

How long will dam removal take?

The dams will be removed over the course of 2.5 to 3 years. The project is designed so that the enormous amount of sediment trapped behind the dams is released gradually, so as not to choke downstream salmon habitat.

What are the benefits of removing these two dams?

Dam removal will restore the river, from mountains to sea, opening access to more than 70 miles of salmon habitat. Salmon runs are expected to grow from 3,000 (current) to more than 300,000 a year. The entire web of life will benefit, from eagles to black bears to orca whales (137 different species depend on salmon). The lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose reservation is at the mouth of the river and who depends on the salmon runs, will have a significant piece of its culture restored.

Dam removal and river restoration will bring hundreds of millions of dollars of economic benefits to the community, from restored fisheries to recreation and tourism. The river will serve as an unprecedented laboratory for scientists to study how a river comes back to life – learning valuable lessons we can apply to other rivers around the country.

Will any electricity be lost as a result of dam removal? Why get rid of dams that are making money and creating cheap energy?

The amount of electricity generated by the dams (about 19 mw) was minimal compared to both the region’s needs and its power production capacity. The dams provided power equal to about one half the energy needs of just one local company, the Nippon Paper Industries mill. The mill is currently receiving all of its power from the City of Port Angeles via the regional electrical grid. The mill is seeking to construct a power facility at the mill that would exceed the amount of power the two dams produce on average.

Is American Rivers opposed to all dams?

No – dams can provide useful services and hydropower dams will continue to be an important part of the nation’s energy portfolio. American Rivers has supported the continued operation of hundreds of hydropower dams across the country. Dam removal makes sense when a dam has outlived its usefulness, is unsafe, or when its costs outweigh its benefits.

How many dams have been removed nationwide?

American Rivers has dubbed 2011 ‘the year of the river’ because the nation will soon reach the significant milestone of 1000 dams removed nationwide. This demonstrates great support and momentum for restoring rivers. The earliest known removal on our list is 1912. We expect roughly 50 dams to be removed in 2011.

What are some other big dams slated for removal in the near future?

Preparations are underway to remove Condit Dam (125 feet tall) on southwest Washington’s White Salmon River. The main blast at the dam is scheduled for October 26. Removal of dams on Maine’s Penobscot River begins next summer, in a major effort to restore Atlantic salmon and other fisheries.

2 Comments

  • Sounds great would love to follow your progress

    Worried about unintended consequences of sediment. Should I be?

    Posted by Dennis lynch | October 5, 2011 at 1:02 am
  • very interesting

    Posted by dennis lynch | October 6, 2011 at 12:38 am

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