Elwha River Dam Removal to Make History this Saturday

elwha river - just down from the dam
Elwha River in the gorge just downstream of Elwha Dam. Photo by Thomas O’Keefe.

We’re making history this Saturday. That’s when the biggest dam removal ever begins on Washington’s Elwha River.

It’s a major river restoration effort, and the world will be watching. It isn’t every day we get to celebrate a success like this. But starting Saturday, we’ll get to witness a river coming back to life before our eyes.

This isn’t just about tearing down a couple old dams. It’s about restoring the soul of this river, and the culture of a people.

Here’s a quick Q&A to help you appreciate why this river restoration effort, during The Year of the River, is so special.

Where is the Elwha River?

The Elwha River is in the northwest corner of Washington state. The river flows from the heart of Olympic National Park to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Puget Sound.

Why is the Elwha River special?

Eighty percent of the river is protected within the park, so most of it is wild and pristine. The river was once home to all five species of Pacific salmon and has been home to the Klallam people for millennia.

How have the dams harmed the river?

There are two dams on the river – Elwha Dam (108 feet tall, built in 1913 just five miles from the river’s mouth) and Glines Canyon Dam (210 feet tall, built in 1927, several miles upstream of Elwha Dam). Both dams were built without fish passage, and completely blocked salmon from historic habitat.

Why is the Elwha dam removal significant?

This is the world’s biggest dam removal, and one of biggest and most significant river restoration efforts. We will see a river coming back to life, with great benefits for salmon runs, the tribe and community. The lessons we learn on the Elwha can inspire other river restoration efforts around the country.

How will the dams be removed?

The dams will be removed gradually, over the course of 2.5 to 3 years.

What role has American Rivers played in the Elwha dam removal?

Many people and groups, including the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, have worked for decades to restore the Elwha. American Rivers has advocated for dam removal on the Elwha for more than 25 years. We intervened in the relicensing proceedings early on, and challenged the relicensing of a dam in a national park. We helped move forward the 1992 legislation that authorized dam removal. More recently, American Rivers helped secure more than $50 million in federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the Elwha River restoration project.

What are the benefits of removing these two dams?

Dam removal will restore the river, from mountains to sea, opening access to more than 70 miles of salmon habitat. Salmon runs will grow from 3,000 (current) to more than 300,000 a year. The entire web of life will benefit, from black bears to tiny insects to orca whales (137 different species depend on salmon).

The lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose reservation is at the mouth of the river and who depends on the salmon runs, will have a significant piece of its culture restored.
Dam removal and river restoration will bring hundreds of millions of dollars of economic benefits to the community, from restored fisheries to recreation and tourism.

Will any electricity be lost as a result of dam removal?

The amount of electricity generated by the dams (about 19 megawatts) is minimal compared to both the region’s needs and its power production capacity. The dams provide power equal to about one half the energy needs of just one local company, the Nippon Paper Industries mill. The mill is currently receiving all of its power from the City of Port Angeles via the regional electrical grid. The mill is seeking to construct a power facility at the mill that would exceed the amount of power the two dams produce on average.

Will the Elwha dam removal help spur other dam removal and river restoration efforts?

Every dam removal is different, but common lessons can be learned about the best ways to make it work for the river and community. The dam removal and river restoration effort on the Elwha should inspire restoration efforts on other rivers in the region and across the country. When communities see the benefits on the Elwha, they will ask questions about their own rivers and hopefully work toward their own restoration efforts.