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Preparations Underway For Biggest Dam Removal In U.S. History

The biggest dam removal in U.S. history is getting underway.  In Olympic National Park Monday, heavy excavators begin digging a channel to re-route the Elwha River. 

The idea of tearing down a pair of tall hydropower dams has been talked about for twenty-five years. 

Tom Banse reports talk has given way to action in the Elwha Valley.

I’m standing at the lip of Elwha Dam. That’s the sound of the Elwha River in the background gushing out of a spillway and then crashing down 105 feet into an emerald, green pool at the base of dam. 

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
According to the National Park Service, 210 foot tall Glines Canyon Dam will be the tallest dam ever purposely torn down in the world.

Because the sun is hitting just right now, I can see salmon.  Actually, quite a few salmon — circling aimlessly here at the foot of the dam — still looking after all these years for some way over. 

It’s been 100 years since Elwha Dam was constructed.  It was built without fish ladders. Because of that — and those frustrated salmon below — this dam’s days are numbered.

The preparations for dam removal are underway upstream and downstream of here.  This month, contractors will dig a channel through a delta of lake sediment to help the Elwha River find its original course. 

Olympic National Park spokesman Dave Reynolds watches a barge ferry heavy equipment for that across manmade Lake Mills.  He says the lake is gradually being drawn down.

Dave Reynolds: “It is symbolic and it seems like a lot of people are really excited about it.  This seems like the first major project right on the Elwha. It’s changing the landscape.  It’s got a lot of people really looking forward to next year and the beginning of dam removal here.”

There are people who will miss these two dams and the lakes they created.  I found Port Angeles sport fisherman David Mead casting for trout below Glines Canyon Dam.

David Mead: “I like the way it is set up right now.  It’s been this way so long.  I just personally don’t see the need to tear those out when we’ve got so many other rivers for the salmon and the steelhead and everything.”

Lake Mills before its drawdown to facilitate dam removal.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

However, Mead recognizes the debate about tearing down the dams is over.

David Mead: “Hopefully it’s all going to be for the best when it’s all done.”

The Lower Elwha Klallam Indian tribe set all this in motion back in 1986.  That’s when the tribe challenged the relicensing of 210-foot tall Glines Canyon Dam and the 108-foot tall Elwha Dam. 

Tribal member Robert Elofson wears the motive on his chest.  The words are literally stitched into a logo on his jacket.

Robert Elofson: “It says, ‘We want our dammed salmon back.’ That’s d-a-m-m-e-d.”

Elofson directs the Elwha River Restoration Program for his tribe.  He says dam removal will open 70 miles of river and tributary habitat.

Here on the reservation, rumbling convoys of dump trucks signal the decades-long wait to free the river will soon be over.  The trucks also drive home what makes dam removal so expensive and complicated. 

Among other things, contractors are raising levees to protect reservation housing from a less controlled waterway.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Robert Elofson stands on an eroded Lower Elwha Klallam reservation beach that he hopes will be nourished with river sediments now trapped behind two Elwha River dams and then repopulated with clams.

Robert Elofson: “The river level will be higher, the groundwater level and the flood levels will be higher.  So the levee system has to be modified and expanded.”

American taxpayers are also paying for a new fish hatchery.  It will shelter the remaining Elwha salmon during the dam removal process. 

Robert Elofson: “We’ve worked very hard to get where we are and to get this project done. You know, we take a great deal of pride in the fact that it has been accomplished.”

Actual deconstruction of the concrete dams will happen piecemeal starting next year. 

Several other dams around the country are slated to be torn down next year as well.  That includes Pacific Power’s 125-foot tall Condit Dam on the White Salmon River near Portland. 

The surge of activity prompts the environmental group American Rivers to dub 2011 “the year of river restoration.”


Olympic National Park

Animation of how the Glines Canyon Dam will be removed

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