Removing Two Dams in Olympic National Park
What once was a reservoir is now running water. What was once a concrete eyesore is now a wild river.
Why would the need or time come to remove two dams that provided power to an active industry for almost a century? Dams are typically constructed based on societal needs: irrigation for farming, electricity for a city, or drinking water. The Olympic Power Company built the Elwha Dam in 1913 to provide power to growing communities on the Olympic Peninsula. Power generated by the dams helped fuel the local economy. Nevertheless, the need and time came to tear down the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams.
Prior to the dams, all five species of Pacific salmon ran the Elwha, including coho, pink, chum, sockeye and Chinook salmon, along with cutthroat trout, native char and steelhead. The failure to build fish ladders in 1913 left the Elwha River with a mere five miles of available habitat for spawning fish. Over time, fish populations dwindled in the river.
In addition, the dam flooded lands sacred to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who have long identified with the river, the salmon, and with lands inside Olympic National Park. Renewed access to sites of cultural, historical, and religious significance is so important to tribal members that they consider it beyond value.
After years of planning and public involvement, including two environmental impact statements, the National Park Service began removing the dams in 2011. By the spring of 2012, the Elwha Dam was completely gone. The demolition of the second hydroelectric dam, the Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927, is well under way and is the largest project of its kind in U.S. history.
Tearing down dams creates huge amounts of sediment in the river, and does not immediately create ideal conditions for fish habitat. Biologists estimate it will be 3-5 years before the Elwha River returns to normal sediment conditions. The dam removal will expose approximately 684 acres that park and tribal staff and volunteers will revegetate with native plants. Engineers and biologists will also place “engineered log jams” in the river to replicate the trees, branches, and root wads that accumulate in healthy rivers and streams and provide spawning habitat.
To learn more about the dam removal and to view videos and web cams, visit Olympic National Park’s Elwha River Restoration page.