Removing the Elwha River Dams, Olympic National Park

(The article that follows appeared in the March-April, 2011,  issue of Washington Trails, a publication of Washington Trails Association I had such a good time researching and writing it, that I decided that it deserves a wider audience.)

The Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River on the Olympic peninsula, both built without fish passages, prevent salmon from returning to their historic spawning beds. Although state law at the time the dams were built, between 1910 and 1927, required the construction of fish passages, Thomas Aldwell with his Olympic Power and Development Company did not comply. Power generated for homes and businesses in the region and as far away as Bremerton trumped the needs of the diverse animal and plant life of the river valley, and the traditional life of the Lower Elwah Klallam people.

At one time, chinook, coho, pink, chum and sockeye salmon, some weighing as much as 100 pounds, swam up the Elwha to spawn. Where hundreds of thousands of smolt, young salmon, once left the mouth of the Elwha to enter the Pacific Ocean and return to spawn in one to five years, now fewer than 3,000 salmon return just to the first five miles of river.

In 1992, through the urging of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the National Park Service, conservation groups, the dams’ owner (Crown Zellerbach Corporation), and concerned citizens, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. The goal of the act was to restore the valley’s ecological health, not to destroy the dams, but after studying alternatives involving installing fish passages at one or both dams, it became clear that only the removal of both dams will lead to a healthy river system, including the restoration of the variety of fish runs.

Before the dams can be touched, however, the engineers, biologists, and other researchers must carefully prepare. Forty-three different projects have been recognized, from identifying and protecting the tiniest of insect and plant species to radio-tracking large mammals to levee improvement to returning the floor of the emptied reservoirs to their pre-inundation state. School children, through the UW College of Education’s Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center and with the assistance of the Olympic Park Institute, have been involved in collecting baseline data. Two treatment plants to protect the water supply to Port Angeles and the surrounding area have been constructed.

For a while it was feared that while Congress had passed the act, there would be a long wait as money gradually became available. Then through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, stimulus funds made an immediate beginning possible, ahead of schedule. The actual destruction of the dams is scheduled to begin in September 2011, with a celebration at Olympic National Park.

At the higher Glines Canyon Dam, thirteen miles from the mouth of the river, the plan is to first draw down Lake Mills partway and then notch and lower the dam gradually, drawing down the lake at the same time. At Elwha Dam, the water of Lake Aldwell will be directed to flow through the western spillway while the dam is removed, and then the river will be re-directed to its natural channel.

Full recovery of the valley may take as long as ten years, but when the dams are gone and the lakes drained, the forty-five miles of river will be restored to its free-flowing state, from the peaks of Olympic National Park to the Straits of Juan de Fuca, as it was one hundred years ago. Sacred sites of the Lower Elwha Klallam people, now covered by the reservoirs, will be visible once again. Over the next three years, the world will be watching the largest dam removals the United States has ever seen. Lessons learned here, on dam removal and restoration, will be applied to other rivers nationally and internationally.

To see the river for yourself, contact the National Parks Conservation Association,, for their brochure, “A Driving Tour of the Elwha River.” For more details on the removal, go to

Note: Resources used to prepare this article include the NPCA brochure above; the National Park Service brochure, “Freeing the Elwah, A Story of Dam Removal and Restoration;” Seattle Times “Dams get closer to demolition,” April 12, 2010; Columns, The University of Washington Alumni Magazine, “Education on the Elwha,” December, 2010; and conversation with David Graves of NPCA.




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