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.

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