Monday, May 9, 2011

Freeing the Elwha

Take a last look. Washington’s Olympic National Park is gearing up for the largest dam removal in U.S. history–the Elwha. This past summer was celebrated as the “last dam summer in the Elwha River Valley.” Actual removal will begin in the summer of 2011, starting a two and a half to three year project. Restoration for natural habitat will take much longer, up to 25 years for the salmon runs to fully recover and many years longer for restoring the tattered ecosystem.

What prompted the damming of the Elwha? Over 100 years ago, Thomas Aldwell saw the Elwha River and its narrow gorges as an economic opportunity. Between 1910 and 1913 Aldwell’s Olympic Power and Development Company constructed the dam five miles from the river mouth. Despite a Washington State law requiring fish passage facilities, the dam was erected without them.

Thomas Aldwell boasted that the Elwha is “.... no longer a wild stream crashing down to the Strait; the Elwha was peace and power and civilization.”

The Elwha Dam and another, Glines Canyon Dam (also known as the Upper Elwha Dam, built in 1927) originally provided hydroelectric power for growth as far away as the Bremerton naval shipyard. In later years they provided about 50% of the power for one paper mill. These areas are now receiving power from other sources.

The dams were also responsible for the decline of hundreds of thousands of fish–coho, pink, chum, Chinook and sockeye salmon, as well as steelhead, char and cutthroat trout. With the fish reduced to almost zero, 137 species of wildlife, from the tiny shrews to eagles, mink, elk and bear, were drastically reduced.

In the early 1900s, extensive environmental studies showed that dam removal was the only way to restore native anadromous fish stocks and thus the river’s ecosystem. The final decision was made and a timeline established. Several large projects were completed in 2009 and 2010 in preparation for the actual dam removal.

The removal of the two dams will restore the river to its natural free-flowing state, allowing all five species of Pacific salmon and other fish to once again reach spawning and rearing habitat.. Reforestation will gradually begin, giving habitat to countless other wildlife. Nutrients that link the sea to terrestrial ecosystems will be restored.

One of the important benefits of the Elwha River’s restoration is to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who have lived along the river since time immemorial. Tribal members will have access to sacred sites now inundated by water, and cultural traditions can be reborn. The National Park Service and the Tribe are primary partners on this project.

The cost for dam removal and supporting projects is staggering: approximately $352 million, which includes the purchase of the two dams, the removal of the dams, construction of two water treatment plants and other facilities to protect water users, construction of flood protection facilities, a fish hatchery and a greenhouse to propagate native plants for revegetation. The return, in addition to the restoration of the natural ecosystem, will be an increase in the local economy affected by tourism, recreation and fishing.

This project creates a living laboratory where people can watch and learn what happens when salmon return, after a century, to a still wild and protected ecosystem. What an exciting project to observe and view first-hand.

For more information about this exciting project, visit


Jean Henry Mead said...

An excellent, well-written article, Mary. I wonder what took the government so long to restore the area to its natuarl habitant?

Eunice Boeve said...

I love that the dam is about to be gone! I've never been there and have never seen the dam or the river, but I've been places similar and I think it's an exciting project. We need the fish, the wildlife, the Native American culture to thrive for it is part of who we are as Americans, regardless of race, creed, and color, city folks or rural.