Down with the dams

— image credit:
Sequim Gazette

A new chapter in local history begins Saturday.


At 11 a.m. Sept. 17 a formal ceremony will mark the start of a $27 million, three-year demolition effort to bring down the Elwha River dams. It is the largest dam removal project in U.S. history and plays a key role in a much larger undertaking: the restoration of the Elwha River.


Once a river of legendary fish runs, the construction of the Elwha Dam in 1913 and Glines Canyon Dam in 1927 cut off salmon spawning to all but the lowest five miles of river. A 1996 impact statement by the National Park Service estimated the number of native salmon spawning in the river dropped from 380,000 before the dams to 3,000 by the 1990s.


The loss of robust salmon runs, a source of food and income, hurt the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
After decades of groups lobbying for the removal of the dams, their efforts gained ground when the “Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992” passed. Since then, officials gathered funding, awarded contracts and laid the groundwork for a project they hope will make the Elwha River valley as if the dams hadn’t been built.

A business venture

Thomas Aldwell was an entrepreneur who saw the Elwha River for its potential to generate massive amounts of hydroelectricity at a time when the growing Port Angeles economy provided a huge demand.


Aldwell formed the Olympic Power Company and began constructing the Elwha Dam five miles from the mouth of the river in 1910. The foundation of the dam was faulty, though, and in October 1912 it failed and washed out to the valley below.


After acquiring more financing, Aldwell began reconstruction in 1913 and the final product was a 108-foot dam capable of supplying electricity to the pulp mills of Port Angeles. The dam created the Lake Aldwell 2.5-mile-long reservoir.


Though state law required fish ladders be constructed with dams, Aldwell bypassed the requirement by building a hatchery, which closed in 1922 after operating only seven years.


Demand for more power led to the 1925-1927 construction of the Glines Canyon Dam by the Northwestern Power and Light Company eight miles upstream from the first dam. The Glines Canyon Dam is 210 feet high and, like the Elwha Dam, does not have fish-passage facilities.


Though the dams provided power to cities as far as 60 miles away, the negative effects on the salmon population along with impacts on land in the Olympic National Park, such as erosion of the river bank, began to change perspectives by the 1980s.

Powering down

By the late 1990s, the dams no longer were a major source of power. According to a 1994 report, the dams provided just 38 percent of power for one Port Angeles mill by the mid-1990s. The 1992 Elwha Restoration act stayed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license applications for the dams, which set the groundwork for what is now a $327 million ecosystem restoration project.


The figure includes the cost of purchasing both dams and hydroelectric plants in 2000, tearing them down, constructing two water treatment plants and other facilities to protect water users, and constructing a fish hatchery completed in May 2011, flood protection facilities and a greenhouse to cultivate native plants for revegetation.


The dams were cut off from the Bonneville Power Administration on June 1 and the enormous turbines came to a halt. The Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell reservoirs were lowered 18 feet over the summer.


Diversion channels, cofferdams and other measures are in place to allow further drainage of the water.


Next, Barnard Construction Company of Bozeman, Mont., will dismantle the dams over a period of up to three years under a $26.9 million contract with the National Park Service. Once the dams are down, the river can return to its original channel and the site will be recontoured and revegetated to resemble what it looked like before the dams.


Celebrate Elwha!

Wednesday, Sept. 14
• 1-3 p.m. Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe fish hatchery naming ceremony, 700 Stratton Road, Port Angeles.
• 3:30-5:30 p.m. Elwha storytelling with Jamie Valadez and Roger Fernandes, Heritage Center, 401 E. First St., Port Angeles.
• 6-8 p.m. Elwha open mic sharing thoughts on dam removal through poetry, songs and storytelling, Heritage Center, 401 E. First St., Port Angeles.
• 7-9 p.m. Elwha River stories, John Gussman, photographer and documentary filmmaker, Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes, and U.S. Geological Survey scientist Jon Warrick, Holiday Inn Express, 1441 E. Washington St., Sequim.

• 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Elwha River Science Symposium, scientists give presentations on the ongoing research of the Elwha River. At Peninsula College, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd., Port Angeles. Register at
• 5-7 p.m. Elwha storytelling with Elaine Grinnell and Ben Charles, Heritage Center, 401 E. First St., Port Angeles.
• 5-7 p.m.  Presentation by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, on dam removal. At the Peninsula College gymnasium, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd., Port Angeles. Register at www.celebrate

• 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Elwha River Science Symposium at Peninsula College, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd., Port Angeles.
• 4-7:30 p.m. Sunset Cruise with Expeditions Northwest, tickets are $40, call 452-6210 or visit
• 5-9 p.m. Tribal Gala Fundraising Dinner, Vern Burton Community Center, 308 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles. Tickets are $150 and $300. Purchase at the Heritage Center or
• 5:30-8:30 p.m. Coastal jam session at the Heritage Center.
• 7:30-9 p.m. Dana Lyons concert, Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, 1203 E. Lauridsen Blvd., Port Angeles.
• Music with Linda Dowdell and Craig Buhler, Wine on the Waterfront, 115 E. Railroad Ave., Port Angeles.
• 8:30-9:15 p.m. Hear and See Poetry with poet Seán Mac Falls, Bar N9ne, 229 W. First St., Port Angeles.

• 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Elwha Central, live music and river restoration demonstrations at City Pier, Port Angeles.
• 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Dam removal ceremony, Elwha Dam (invitation only).
• 3-5 p.m., VIP reception, Lake Crescent (invitation only).
• 5 p.m. Potlatch dinner, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Center, 2851 Lower Elwha Road.
• 6-9 p.m. Brats, Brew and Wine, Too harbor tour. Tickets are $25. Call 452-6210 or go to
• 7:30-9:30 p.m. “eTown” recording with musical guests Cake, Danny Barnes and Eliza Gilkyson, Port Angeles High School Performing Arts Center, 304 E. Park Ave. Tickets are $20 at and
• 9 p.m.-midnight After-hours music with The Girdle Scouts and SuperTrees, Bar N9ne, 229 W. First St., Port Angeles.

• 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Guided hike to Elwha Dam viewpoint, Elwha Dam RV Park, 47 Lower Dam Road.
• 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2-4:30 p.m. Guided hike to Hurricane Hill, take Hurricane Ridge Road past the Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center.
• 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Explore Elwha with NatureBridge, a series of educational events throughout the watershed. Free shuttles from City Pier.


Reach Amanda Winters at
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