Elwha River Dams are Gone

For one hundred years, the Elwha Dam stood resolute on the Elwha River just outside Olympic National Park in Washington. On September 27, 2011, the largest dam deconstruction project in history began and 13 months later, the Elwha Dam was gone and the once constrained river began to flow once again.

Glines Dam was just eight miles upstream. Glines, completed in 1926, faced the same fate as the Elwha: Complete removal of the 210 foot high dam over a period of several years. Early this week, engineers nearly reached bedrock when targeted blasts crumbled most of Glines’ remaining 35 foot section. The river is now primed to return to its former glory.

The Elwha River begins in the heart of Olympic National Park and makes a relatively short 75 mile run to the sea at the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At one time, the river supported spawning runs of Chinook, coho, chum, pink and sockeye salmon along with steelhead, cutthroat and bull trout. The runs were huge, with over 400,000 fish in 10 distinct populations that had the river full of spawning fish all year long.

 Power was needed to run the paper mills in Port Angeles, though, and the local timber company bought the land surrounding the dam sites and commenced construction. Despite an 1890 Washington law requiring dams to incorporate fish ladders, the developer fudged and built a hatchery instead. Thehatchery was a failure and closed in 1922 but 35 miles of pristine mainstem and 40 miles of tributary spawning habitat had still been plugged like a cork in a bottle.

 The dams and the hydropower they generated ruled for 80 years and fueled economic growth of Port Angeles.  Electrical power demand grew to the point where both dams combined could only supply 38% of the power needed by a single paper mill.

The question was asked more and more frequently: is that much power worth the loss of the entire river ecosystem? After an intense political battle, the “Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992” authorized the Federal Government to purchase the dams and decommission both of them. The re-birth of a river began.

 While removing huge concrete plugs from a river might seem to be a daunting problem, it was really the 34 million cubic yards of sediments—enough to cover 11 square miles three feet deep—that had collected behind the dams that caused the greatest challenge. The dams had to be dismantled in stages so that the sediment didn’t all wash into the river system at once.

Salmon are already beginning to return to the Elwha. Normal sediment loads are finding their way to the Strait and rebuilding the delta and its once extensive clambeds and sandy beaches. Recovery is expected to take 20-30 years, but when it is done, the Elwha experiment may show that though costly, the removing dams and restoring ecosystems is possible. Then it simply becomes a matter of choices and will for the American Public.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

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