Elwha River dams coming down

The Associated Press reports that the largest dam removal in the history of the United States is about to begin.

The press states that today, nearly two decades after Congress called for full restoration of the Elwha River and its fish runs, federal workers will turn off the generators at the 1913 dam and set in motion the dam removal project.

Contractors will begin dismantling the dams this fall at a cost of $324.7 million and will take about three years. Eventually, the 45-mile Elwha River will run free again.

The Elwha Dam came on line in 1913, followed by the Glines Canyon Dam eight miles upstream. Washington state law required fish passage facilities, but none was ever built. So all five native species of Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish were confined to the lower five miles of the river.

In 1910, the Elwha produced about 390,000 salmon and sea-run trout, including coho, pink, sockeye and chinook salmon and steelhead trout. The number of wild native sea-run fish dwindled to only about 3,000 in 2005.

Because most of the river lies within the protected boundaries of Olympic National Park, scientists say the Elwha River restoration project also presents a unique opportunity to study how a river recovers once dam-free. Researchers will study how salmon return to the river, how their return will benefit wildlife such as bears and eagles, and how the estuary will be reshaped when sediment trapped behind the dams is released.

More than 24 million cubic yards of sediment are held behind the dams.

A window in the dam’s control room, offers a view of the glacier-fed river below where often hundreds of fish can be seen jumping as they run up against the walls of the Elwha Dam.

Read more on Elwha River Restoration.

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