Hope for Salmon as Dams Come Down

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history began in September, marking a victory for a campaign that spanned more than two decades.

The Elwha Dam, built in 1914, and the Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1925, stretch across the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. They were constructed without fish ladders, blocking migratory fish from spawning. The river's salmon runs, once consisting of more than 400,000 fish, are now fewer than 4,000, and its subspecies of Chinook, steelhead, and bull trout are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The dams were built across territory belonging to the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, which had fished the Elwha for generations. The tribe fought for dam removal from the beginning, and was joined in its efforts in the mid-1980s by conservation groups including the Seattle Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, Olympic Park Associates, and the Sierra Club.

Together, they eventually forced a dam removal settlement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Under the resulting 1992 Elwha Restoration Act, the Department of the Interior evaluated methods to restore the river's ecosystem and associated fisheries, and determined in 1994 that it was necessary to remove both dams. But the dams remained in operation for the next 17 years, while $325 million to pay for demolition and cleanup was raised, largely through the National Park Service budget and a stimulus grant generated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Removal of the dams will take about three years; experts believe fish will return to the upper reaches of the Elwha as soon as one year after that. Brian Winter, the Elwha project manager, estimates it will take a further 25 to 30 years for the river to return to its natural state. Conservation groups hope the restoration of the Elwha will provide a model for improved management of American rivers.

Federal officials estimate the dam removal will create at least 760 jobs, and a further 446 annual jobs in recreation and tourism once it is completed.

Watch time-lapse footage of the Elwha Dam's destruction. 

Jennifer Kaye wrote this article for The YES! Breakthrough 15, the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Jennifer is an editorial intern at YES!

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