Biggest U.S. Dam Removal to Restore Salmon Runs
On September 15, the long process begins to dismantle two fish killing dams on the Elwha River. On that day, removal will begin at Glines Canyon dam. Two days later, on September 17, tribal dignitaries, politicians and hundreds, or thousands, of people will gather to celebrate the removal of the Elwha Dams.
The largest dam removal undertaking in U.S. history was started more than 20 years ago by local tribal members and visionary activists with legal support from Earthjustice.
The Elwha Dam. Once the Elwha’s waters flow free again, experts predict that the river’s salmon population will swell. (NPS)
“What will happen on the Elwha River with the dams coming down is a historic return of a wild river and its legendary fish runs,” said Todd True, a long-time attorney for Earthjustice. “It is also a story about how enforcing our environmental laws might take years to show results but eventually can bring about lasting change."
According to experts, removing the two massive dams on the Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic peninsula, is considered one of the most promising acts of salmon habitat restoration in the region and the nation.
Once the Elwha’s waters flow free again, experts predict that the river’s salmon population will swell from their current number of about 3,000 to nearly 400,000 fish spawning annually by 2039. The river will be especially important as climate change reduces salmon habitat elsewhere. The Elwha is expected to remain a cold, clean river because it flows protected through undisturbed forests in Olympic National Park.
Completed in 1913, the 108-foot high Elwha Dam is about 4 miles from the mouth of the Elwha River. The 210-foot high Glines Canyon Dam, completed in 1927, is about 10 miles farther upriver. Both dams, built to provide electricity for a paper mill in Port Angeles, were constructed without fish ladders, which blocked salmon from most of their historic spawning habitat.
The dams’ removal had been proposed back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Richard Rutz, with advice and legal support from Earthjustice, raised what is believed to be the first challenge to a dam’s operating permit, arguing the dams should come out. One of the two dams slated for removal was built on a part of the river that later became part of Olympic National Park. The dam was never legally grandfathered out of the national park and laws protecting national parks made clear the dam couldn’t legally be relicensed.
Rutz, working with local environmental groups and Earthjustice, investigated the history and technical information for the two Elwha dams which had come due for relicensing in the late 1970’s.
“Back then, hydropower licensing and relicensing were routinely rubber stamped by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC),” explained Rutz. “Participation was limited to exclude the public and pro forma environmental reviews and approvals were conducted internally.”
An Earthjustice lawyer named Ron Wilson provided the legal expertise for Rutz. They argued that FERC was legally prohibited from relicensing the upper dam. Furthermore, the two dams operated together and the lower dam was unsafe alone and consequently they both could not be relicensed and should come out. An independent review of the environmental impacts of relicensing the dams, sought by Rutz and others, concluded that the preferred alternative would be to remove the dams.
The Tribe and the environmental groups began to work together to achieve tear-down of the two dams. Finally, with increasing public support from Rep. John Miller, R-Washington, Sen. Dan Evans, R-Washington, Sen. Bill Bradley, D-New Jersey and others, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. The new law called for removal of the dams.
“When contractors start removing these fish killing dams next month, it will be a great day for the Elwha River its salmon, Olympic National Park and all the people of Washington,” said Rutz. “A river once known for epic salmon runs will now likely become legendary again—our own Copper River.”
The removal of the Elwha dams’ may inspire other restoration project across the country.
“People will see a truly remarkable event—an iconic river coming back to life,” explained True. “They will start asking important questions about their own rivers after witnessing the benefits of the Elwha River returning to its historic state. Perhaps they’ll be inspired to seek restoration of their own rivers too.”
Demolition and removal of the dams is expected to take three years and eventually will allow the 45-mile Elwha River to run free once again.