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A wild future for the long-dammed Elwha River

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Sep. 21, 2010 at 7:55 pm with No Comments »
September 21, 2010 5:59 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The two dams on the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River were a bad idea when they were built early in the 20th century. It’s taken what seems like forever to undo the mistake.

But it’s finally happening. Bulldozers are clearing 37 acres of trees on the Elwha River, the first stage of a complex engineering operation that will culminate in the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. The next step is to create a “pilot channel” to make sure the sediment trapped behind the dams – the equivalent of 1 million pickup loads – gets flushed downstream properly when the structures are dismantled.

The actual dismantling begins a year from now.

A $50 million boost from last year’s federal stimulus package helped get the $350 million project started a year early. But “early” is a relative term here. Some people – especially the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe – have been talking about tearing out the dams for at least a quarter century.

Over the course of the first Bush and Clinton and second Bush administrations, the U.S. government moved from reluctant to interested to committed. The decision and money have been a long time coming, but we’re finally seeing tangible evidence that the dams are going.

Their removal will reverse one of the biggest environmental blunders in state history. The completion of the Elwha Dam in 1913 and the Glines Canyon Dam in 1927 cut migrating salmon and steelhead off from 70 miles of upriver spawning habitat, leaving them only five miles downriver. Wild runs that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands were reduced to hundreds.

After the dams are down in the spring of 2014, as many as 300,000 salmon are expected to repopulate the upper stretches of the river and its tributaries.

Unlike more important hydroelectric and flood-control projects, there’s been precious little rationale for perpetuating these dams. Their power output is almost trivial compared to the big dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Both were built without fish passages, creating dead ends for fish that had climbed the Elwha to spawn for millennia.

This will be a historic demolition. Dams proliferated across the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many wrought environmental havoc far out of proportion to the benefits they delivered, often to small numbers of people. Roughly 750 of these impoundments have since been removed from rivers; the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams will be the largest to come down.
When they are gone, the Elwha River – which reaches deep into the heart of Olympic National Park – will slowly grow salmon-rich and wild again. It never should have been otherwise.

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