Dams fall as Washington state eyes salmon revival

By Laura L. Myers, Reuters

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Washington–In the wilderness of Washington state’s Olympic National Park, hydraulic hammers chip away at the Glines Canyon Dam in the largest dam-removal project in U.S. history. The grinding knocks off chunks of concrete, slowly removing the once-imposing 210-foot-tall (64-meter) structure, whose construction in 1927 on the Elwha River blocked one of the world’s most prolific salmon runs. Nine miles (14 km) downstream, workers last month removed the 108-foot-tall (33-meter) Elwha Dam, built in 1913, allowing the river channel there to flow freely for the first time in nearly a century. The two dams, about 80 miles (129 km) northwest of Seattle, blocked migratory routes of salmon and steelhead trout to some 70 miles (113 km) of tributary habitat, in the process robbing Native Americans of income by halting a treaty-guaranteed reservation fishery. The river teemed with thrashing pink salmon before the Elwha Dam was built to generate electricity for the nearby mill town of Port Angeles, with a current population of around 19,000, and later, to a naval shipyard in Bremerton, about 80 miles away (129 km). The Elwha Dam’s removal, completed in late March, was hailed by Governor Christine Gregoire as a significant environmental milestone that “shows what happens, when against many odds, a river is restored to its natural beauty.” Supporters of the dam’s destruction say the benefits to the environment of tearing it down outweigh the loss of its aging power-generating station.

The destruction of the Glines should be finished in about a year to 18 months, ending the biggest dam demolition in U.S. history. The removal of the two dams — ordered by a 1992 law signed by then-President George H.W. Bush — is aimed at restoring the natural habitat of more than 300,000 salmon. Economic and environmental impact analyses delayed the project’s start. Some environmentalists see the Elwha as symbol of a future in which more rivers can flow unbridled by behemoth dams built in the 1900s. Other dam demolition projects are on the drawing board across the nation.