Previous Next

Elwha River Dam, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Photo by Brew Books

This week begins the biggest dam removal project in history, restoring over 70 miles of salmon spawning habitat and 4 miles of whitewater on Washington’s Elwha River.

THE ELWHA WATERSHED is one of the most intense places I’ve ever been. A 20-minute ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle, and then just a 90-minute drive across the Olympic Peninsula you end up in temperate rainforests with massive firs and bigleaf maple. The river has multiple whitewater sections, hot springs, and a powerful surf break at its mouth in the straight of Juan de Fuca.

Two dams were built on the river nearly 100 years ago, essentially powering the development of nearby Port Angeles. But as with hundreds, if not thousands of hydroelectric projects from this era, the dams’ current “benefit” (less than 38% of power necessary to operate a single paper mill) in no way justifies their continued existence, which degrades the entire watershed, including 70 miles of salmon habitat that were at one time among the richest in the world.

Beginning September 17th, and scheduled to take three years, both dams on the Elwha will be demolished, and the river will once again be free flowing from its headwaters to the Pacific. The upper dam (Giles Canyon) is over 200 feet tall, the tallest dam ever removed, and the overall project is the largest dam removal ever undertaken. It seems noteworthy however that the original act (Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992) to give the federal government permission to do this was signed almost 20 years ago.

Expedition Kayaker and filmmaker Andy Maser has more on the project at his blog. He recently visited the Elwha himself and spoke to Robert Elofson of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. Listen to his descriptions of the river from their elders beginning @ 1:30:

Year of the River: Episode 1 from Andy Maser on Vimeo.

Thanks Andy for reporting on this story and for everyone who is helping dam removal projects around the world. This is the way forward.

Activism + Politics


About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • rossdborden

    man…what a great story. hope we hear about more of these.

  • JustinSlick

    This is incredibly cool…  might’ve taken 20 years, but it’s still a great success story.  I’m moving to Washington soon… can’t wait to explore the Olympic peninsula.

  • Corey

    Dude, dams in no way have as much impact as burning fossil fuels, so saying that removing dams is the way forward is rubbish. Think about it, do you want climate change or a river system that has been moderately disturbed? I’m sure this old dam didn’t incorporate fish ladders of anything of that sort, but most new ones try to mitigate the impacts as much as possible. Solar and wind are no better, they take up space in animal and plant communities and wind turbines kill birds. That’s not to say they are terrible, just equal to dams. There is no perfect solution, only hippies that like driving their cars 90 mins into the wilderness and then complaining about some man-made structure.  

    • Rory Moulton

      You’re right, Corey, there is no energy panacea, but some of us are willing to trade megawatts for healthy rivers. Especially when the dams are unnecessary, outmoded and inefficient.

  • Matt Scott

    Great to hear about beautiful places actually being preserved, and improved: seems like so many are just being destroyed!

  • Rory Moulton

    All I can say to that is KICKASS!

    And if you can’t get a dam taken down or want to hasten its demise, try this:

  • women dresses

    Growing up near several (6 or 7 within 4 hours of me) Dams this is the
    most stupid thing I have ever heard. The dams a long the Columbia river
    supply power to 3 states, one of them being California, which has enough
    power problems as it is.

    Let go of your tree, build a fish ladder and move on….

    Or we could build Nuclear power plant and reduce the impact on the
    environment. Lived by one of those as well. Cheap power is great.

  • Pink Frankenstein

    In the early 90s I worked on a documentary film (16mm!) with film-maker Robert Lundahl  on this very subject. We interviewed the tribe, citizens of Port Angeles who knew Tom Aldwell the financial builder of the dam. Here is the website: and a clip:

    I see that the usual  ’save the dam’ voices have already showed-up here. I thought those old timers would be dead by now, along with their disastrous ideas.

  • Erika Meyer

    As a Port Angeles native and lover of the Elwha watershed, just a few corrections — it’s Glines Canyon, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s crazy to see how much progress is being made so quickly out here! Thanks for a great article.

"One day we'll just disappear, but the parks will still be here."
The awards are given to organisations breaking new ground with their usage of e-content.
The dreamers and free thinkers are often those whose stories are quieter.
"Every little thing helps" starts to sound like a big fucking joke.
I admire anyone willing to get a little silly, in an effort to tell others about their...
Episode 1 of the Modern Gypsies' motorcycle journey through Kenya.
Every so often, the Academy does something historically or socially valuable.