ELWHA RIVER — The Elwha watershed is booming with new life, after the world’s largest dam removal.
The first concrete went flying in September 2011, and Elwha Dam was out the following March. Glines Canyon Dam upriver tumbled for good in September 2014. Today the river roars through the tight rock canyon once plugged by Elwha Dam, and surges past the bald, rocky hill where the powerhouse stood. The hum of the generators is replaced by the river singing in full voice, shrugging off a century of confinement like it never happened. Nature’s resurgence is visible everywhere.
“Big things can happen if people persevere,” said Mike McHenry, biologist with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which got the ball rolling on dam removal when it was still thought a crazy idea. “Back in 1990, you ask somebody in Anywhere, USA, about dam removal,” McHenry said, “they would have told you that you were nuts.”
Not anymore. Washington, still one of the most hydropower-rich states in the nation, is also today the world’s dam-busting pioneer.
PacifiCorp did the math on keeping the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Southwestern Washington and blew it up with one blast on Oct. 28, 2011.
It took an act of Congress in 1992 to finally free the Elwha, taking down the pair of dams that had blocked the 45-mile mountain river for a century.
The big idea in all three cases was to get rid of hydropower dams no longer worth their maintenance and repair. The dams also had no fish passage, as required by modern environmental laws. Dam removal is restoring 70 miles of spawning habitat in the Elwha.
The $325 million Elwha experiment remains the biggest dam removal project ever. With 83 percent of the Elwha watershed permanently protected in Olympic National Park, it offered a unique chance to start over.