National Geographic News
The Elwha Dam is removed.

Construction crews begin removing the Elwha Dam.

Photograph by Mark Johnson

Brian Clark Howard

for National Geographic News

Published September 23, 2011

This story is part of a special National Geographic News series on global water issues.

Sunbeams occasionally sliced through the notorious Pacific Northwest cloud cover as a bulldozer started carving out pieces of the Elwha Dam’s concrete barrier.

Behind the 108-foot-high (33-meter-high) dam, the serene sliver of turquoise water that is called Lake Aldwell wound its way through a Douglas fir-covered gorge, up toward nearby Olympic National Park. A raft of sun-bleached logs hugged the opposite bank.

(Related: “Largest U.S. Dam Removal to Restore Salmon Runs”)

Dignitaries and at least one bona fide celebrity kicked off the historic event for watershed restoration on Washington’s Olympic peninsula Saturday morning. It was the start of a three-year, $351 million project to dismantle two dams near the mouth of the Elwha River, opening the waterway to salmon for the first time in a century. (See a map of the region.)

It’s also the largest dam removal in the history of a country with 80,000 of the man-made structures, many of them aging, silting up, and no longer useful (or at least necessary). Some, like the two Elwha dams, were built without fish ladders, meaning they serve as completely impenetrable barriers to fish migrations. On Saturday at the base of the dam, officials counted only 72 salmon, unable to swim any farther upstream.

Conservationists hope removal of the Elwha dams will goose the region’s ecosystem by bringing farther inland a key source of food and nutrients—steelhead, chinook, coho, sockeye, and pink salmon. As National Geographic News previously reported, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe tell stories of a time when the river was so chock-full of glistening flesh that one could practically walk across on the bodies of writhing fish.

On Saturday, members of the tribe performed traditional dances to celebrate removal of the Elwha Dam, which has stood on their homeland since 1913.

Tribal Councilwoman Frances G. Charles was joined at the ceremony by U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington State, Governor Christine Gregoire, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and Director of the National Park Service Jonathan Jarvis. Actor Tom Skerrit was in attendance, as was former U.S. senator and professional basketball player Bill Bradley.

Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, told the crowd, "Twenty-five years ago, the idea of removing this dam or any dam was really seen as a crazy idea by a bunch of wild-eyed environmental extremists. Now it is a mainstream idea, because people recognize the benefits of restoring healthy rivers—benefits not only to the environment, but to communities."

(Related: “Learn How to Reduce Your Own Water Footprint”)

Michael Connor, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said, “This is just breathtaking for me. This is not only an historic moment, but it's going to lead to historic moments elsewhere across the country.”

Removal work has also begun ten miles upstream, with chunks being taken out of the 210-foot-high (64-meter-high) Glines Canyon Dam, which was completed in 1927 (follow progress yourself on these webcams). Both dams were built to provide hydropower to a local paper mill, but alternate sources of power have been rerouted to serve the facility.

The reason the dams aren’t being blasted away in one swift action is because engineers want to avoid a sudden surge that could disturb the 24 million cubic yards of sediment that have piled up behind the dam over time.

Experts say it could take 30 years before the river re-establishes something akin to its historic flow, reports the Los Angeles Times. When that happens, the estimated 3,000 salmon that now spawn in the paltry five miles of the upper Elwha could multiply to 300,000 in the 70-mile length of river that wends through the national park.

Irvin of American Rivers and other supporters hope the dams’ removal will spur other projects around the country. There has been growing scientific and popular support for some time to reopen many of our rivers, but funding has remained a challenge, Irvin says.

In the case of the Elwha, Congress authorized the dam removal 20 years ago, but it took two decades to get the money and logistical details in place.

Mark Johnson contributed to this piece.

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