Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Removal of the Elwha Dams Begins...

For years, there have been discussions, political battles, and then planning for the removal of the Elwha River dams on the Olympic Peninsula. Built in the early 1900's, these dams blocked access for one of the largest salmon producing rivers in the Pacific Northwest for up to 65 miles of prime spawning habitat. This river is one of only two in the State of Washington (the Skagit River is the other) that contains all six species of Pacific Salmon (Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, pink, and steelhead). The once huge salmon runs of up to 400,000 returning salmon are now down to under 3,000 in the lowest 5 miles of the river below the lower dam. You can read the entire article I wrote about it in 2008 on wikipedia here, when I was the Elwha Interpretive Ranger at Olympic National Park.

File:Elwha Dam.jpg
The dam before the opening of the spillways

Well, now the time is finally upon us, after numerous delays. The contracts have been written, the plans finalized, and the beginning of the end of these old and dangerous dams is here. Last week, they shut down the hydroelectric generators. Then, they opened the flood gates and spillways to full capacity to lower the level of the lakes in preparation for the actual removal later this summer. It is an amazing site to see so much water tumbling out of Lake Aldwell and the lake already down by around 15 feet.

Normally only a trickle came out from cracks in the old river channel

The old river channel was a 100 foot deep canyon that was blocked by the concrete wall. Today, water flows through at full force from the flood gates. Soon the river will flow in its original channel at the bottom of the cliffs.

The primary spillway is quite the cascade now!

They will close public access to Elwha Dam on July 1st and access to Glines Canyon Dam on August 1st. So, if you want to see these structures before their removal, you gotta go now. Then they will begin the preparatory process for removal, with actual demolition to begin around September 15th. It will take about 2.5 years to fully remove the dams and restore the river bed to its original state.

You can see the mud and old stumps that were under the lake

You can see the old concrete coffer dam here that redirected the river during original construction in 1912

When the original Elwha Dam blew out in 1910, they had to plug the holes with tons of gravel and fill. So, today there is a large hill of rock that will need to be removed. With the lake level down, you can now see the water flowing over the top of this fill almost like a river.

It almost looks like a river again already

It is going to be fascinating to watch the removal process via the webcams that will be set up by the National Park Service and then to visit the old lakebed in 2014 to see the river flowing free once again. It will take a long time for the vegetation to reestablish itself in the muddy lakebed. But, the salmon should start up the river almost immediately after removal. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to see salmon running up the river for the first time in 100 years!


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