ELWHA, Wash. —- For the dozens of salmon swimming in the pool at the base of the Elwha Lower Dam, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 was a significant day —- whether they knew it or not.
On the other side of the dam, a large hydraulic backhoe pounded. The thump, thump, thumping resonated through Olympic National Park. In a matter of seconds, the first chunk of concrete came loose.
From a hill overlooking the dam, a crowd of a few hundred had gathered to witness the historic moment marking the official beginning of the Elwha dam removal project, which will open more than 70 miles of river that cuts through the Olympic Peninsula. It will be the second largest environmental restoration project in U.S. history, after the Everglades restoration project.
“Elwha be free!” yelled Tom Skerritt, a Hollywood actor from Washington state, who served as master of ceremonies for the event.
Undamming the Elwha
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The $325 million project to remove two dams — the 108-foot Lower Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Glines Canyon dam — will be the largest dam removal project ever attempted in the United States. When the dams were built nearly a century ago to provide hydroelectric power to the residents of Port Angeles, they were installed without a way for fish to pass. Ever since, 70 miles of prime spawning habitat upstream have been off limits to salmon. This river once boasted annual salmon runs in the hundreds of thousands. Now only a few thousand salmon return each year.
For members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, this day marked the end of a long struggle. For many decades tribal members have fought for dam removal, making countless trips to the nation’s capitol pleading for the dams to be taken out and the salmon runs restored.
“Relatives who lived on these waters prayed when they saw damages done. And so many times it seemed that prayers were in vain,” said tribal elder Ben Charles Sr.
But today, he said, prayers were answered.
With tears in his eyes, Charles looked at the line of tribal elders before him, many of whom never believed they would see dam removal happen in their lifetime. And he remarked, “Wow. We get to see this.”
Saturday was a day dedicated to recognition, recollection and celebration — but upriver, dam removal had already begun on the Glines Canyon Dam. A backhoe started chipping away at the top of the dam on Thursday.
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“Dam removal isn’t the best plan everywhere, but it’s the best plan here,” said Mike Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Land Reclamation, the agency usually responsible for building dams, not taking them down.
“It’s going to lead to historic moments across the country,” Connor said. “I hope that the Bureau of Reclamation is known as much for restoring ecosystems as it is for building and maintaining dams.”
The dams will be removed gradually over the next two and a half years. The upper dam will be dismantled from the top down. At the lower dam, the river will be routed around the dam before it is removed.
The ceremony concluded with a speech from U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who proclaimed: “A new era has dawned with respect to how we appreciate our rivers.”
About 750 dams are currently slated to be removed around the country.
On the way out of the park, everyone was invited to pocket a piece of the rubble that had been removed from the dam to take home as a memento.