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Freeing the Elwha: Witnessing the Largest Dam Removal Project in History
This past weekend, large excavators began deconstructing two dams along the Elwha river in Olympic National Park. The project is the largest dam removal project to date and one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects in U.S. history.
Economic development in the Pacific Northwest has often relied on the abundant natural resources of the area, with timber and salmon being two of the most iconic. In early 1900s along the Elwha river, timber production was prioritized over abundant salmon resources. In 1913, Thomas Aldwell built the Elwha dam 5 miles upstream from the mouth of the Elwha river in order to provide power to a lumber mill and the local community. Despite laws at the time requiring fish ladders, none were installed. In 1926, a second dam was built another 8 miles upstream. These two dams cut off 70 miles of pristine migratory fish habitat, reducing historical salmon runs from over 400,000 fish to less that 4,000 today.
After years of legislation and planning, the dams are finally coming down. Wanting to witness historic occasion, my friend Jesse and I headed up to the Elwha in order to catch a glimpse of the dams and check out the dam removal ceremony happening in Port Angeles. Jesse wrote his thesis on the economic effects of the Edwards dam removal on Maine’s Kennebec River. I was interested in seeing the beginning of a large scale ecosystem restoration project.
Hopping a ferry from downtown Seattle on Friday afternoon, I met up with Jesse on Bainbridge Island and we headed up towards the peninsula. By nightfall we had entered Olympic National Park, and had set up camp a stones throw away from the rushing Elwha river.
The next morning, after a restless night of sleep due to Jesse’s intermittent loud snoring, we hiked up a service road to the Glines Canyon dam. Upon reaching the dam site, we were greeted by an imposing fence preventing us from getting close to the dam. We were able to hike a bit farther up and saw that they had already lowered the water level in the lake and that demolition had already begun on the dam itself.
After snapping a few pics, we headed back down towards the Elwha Dam, where a ceremony was due to start in the late morning. At the entrance, we were halted by a slew of state troopers and local police. At the gate a kind but uninformative trooper told us the event was invite only, and sent us on our way. We later learned that security was tight due to the various dignitaries in attendance including U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salzar, Washington Governor Gregoire, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murrary, and other officials.
So we headed into Port Angeles, where a mini festival was happening down at the town pier, featuring a live feed from the ceremony along with a number of information booths from various environmental organizations. After talking with a number of foresters, scientists, and environmentalists, we sat down to watch the ceremony. It was touching to hear an Elwha tribal leader give an emotional speech about the significance of the occasion. After his tribe having been marginalized in their traditional homeland and having their salmon resources choked off for the last 100 years, his feelings were well warranted.
With the removal of the dams over the next 3-5 years and the opening up of the upper Elwha, many people hope that the salmon will recolonize the watershed. Within 20 years, some predict that salmon and steelhead runs will return to a semblance of their historic levels. The Elwha tribe, situated at the mouth of the river, has agreed to halt all fishing in the river for 5 years in order to speed up the recovery.
The project is not without controversy. The tribe has lobbied for a new $16 million fish hatchery in order to “jumpstart” fish production. Many environmentalists are appalled. Kurt Beardslee of the Wild Fish Conservancy said that “the wild salmon deserve a chance to come back to the Elwha without having to compete with millions of hatchery fish.”
Members of the Elwha tribe see a different side of the story. Larry Ward, hatchery manager for the tribe said, “there is this whole philosophy of the Elwha being a living laboratory, when in reality, it is the home of the Elwha tribe. After waiting 100 years for the dams to come out, they are not willing to wait another 100 years for the fish to recover.”
Either way, the river restoration and dam removal is a huge win for the local environment. It will also be a test case for dam removal and restoration for other parts of the Pacific Northwest as well as the country.
After hearing a number of speeches by dignitaries, we decided to head back into a the park up in order to make the most of our time. We drove up to Hurricane ridge, affording us awesome views of the Olympic wilderness. It was heartwarming to know that at least in one corner of the planet, the environmentalists are winning.
Check out these links:
A poor-quality video of ceremony (jump to 1:15:00 to see footage of the dam and the start of demolition)