What Happens When You Demolish Two 100-Year-Old Dams
Can the largest river restoration project in history serve as a template for other waterways across the country?
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
“A river is never silent…Reservoirs stilled my song.” Narrated from the point of view of Washington’s Elwha River, a new documentary about the largest dam removal project in U.S. history starts off on a somber tone before building toward the best possible catharsis: massive charges of dynamite demolishing a pair of meddlesome dams.
The 1,400-square-mile Olympic National Park is the fifth most-visited national park in the country, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, and the 45-mile-long Elwha is its heart. It is fed by runoff from Mount Olympus and, in turn, feeds thousands of acres of forestland and flows into the Pacific Ocean. But for more than 100 years the river’s flow was restricted by two dams initially installed, like so many others in the country, as generators of cheap power. Eventually, the dams were discovered to be a strain on the local environment and nearby communities outgrew the need for them. But removing the dams would not be an easy task. It took more than two decades and countless efforts by local community members and environmental groups to tear the dams down and return the river to its natural state.
Return of the River, currently screening around the Pacific Northwest, tells the story of the fight to restore the Elwha to its former glory, how the project might serve as an example for successful dam removal projects across the country—even ones mired in political discord—and how opening up the river created a myriad of new recreation opportunities.
Built in 1910 and 1926 respectively, the Elwha dam (108 feet high) and Glines Canyon dam (210 feet high) provided the only power to a lumber mill town called Port Angeles, situated on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Pacific Northwest lumber industry was skyrocketing, and concerns about the dams’ environmental impact and effect on public enjoyment of the surrounding forestland were almost nonexistent. (In fact, Olympic National Park wasn’t formed until more than a decade after the last dam’s completion.) The only apparent impact was to local salmon populations (which plunged by 99 percent) and to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which depended on the fish. Dam advocates presented a hatchery as a solution to the fish problem and moved on.
Over time, as adequate, affordable electrical power became available from other sources and the hatchery failed to offset the drop in available salmon, locals started questioning the need for the dams. The Elwha tribe argued that fishing rights, granted to them long before the dams were in place, were useless if the dams eliminated the salmon. So, the tribes, along with environmental groups, began petitioning for restoration of the Elwha and its salmon runs. In 1992, their petitions were heard and President George H.W. Bush signed legislation to allow the federal government to buy the dams and begin conducting studies regarding the feasibility of their removal. For local tribes and environmental advocates, it was time to go to work. Hundreds of environmental studies later, the decision to remove the dams was finalized.
In Return of the River we see how the process unfolded, how the call to remove the dams endured the tenures of pro-dam politicians and eventually grew into a local movement. Not that there weren’t concerns about fallout from dynamiting a pair of century-old concrete barriers. What would happen when two lakes worth of water and countless tons of sediment packed against the dam walls suddenly, explosively, surged downstream?
On August 26, 2014, the final series of charges inside the dams were detonated and the water began to flow freely like it hadn’t since the early 20th century.
Less than two weeks after the last demolition blast, salmon returned to the upper watershed. Sediment carried downriver began nourishing an expansive beach at the mouth of the river. Native plants began to flourish in the drained lakebeds.
“I can’t think of another place in the country where you can get a front row seat to a restoration project of this magnitude,” said Tom O’Keefe, a local river ecologist and Pacific Northwest stewardship director for rafting advocacy group American Whitewater. “It’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever been.”
Olympic has turned the dam sites into educational exhibits and permanent interpretive centers are slated to open in May. Rafters are entering the Elwha above the old Elwha dam and shooting through what used to be a wall, following new Class III rapids all the way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. (O’Keefe now paddles along 20 new miles of some of the most diverse whitewater in the country, including sections of Class V rapids.) Hikers are exploring miles of new trails, following those created by stewards who are working to plant over 500,000 pounds of native seeds and over 400,000 plants in the old reservoirs. Not only are these new recreation opportunities available, they’re getting visitors. The Olympic National Park shows that attendance to the Elwha has increased over 60 percent in the past year.
“Here’s a case where we’re really letting a river be wild again,” said Amy Kober, senior director of communications at the advocacy group American Rivers. There are about 50 dam removal projects currently active in the country, with more slated to start in the years to come, according to American Rivers. The evolution of the Elwha isn’t a perfect template for those other projects, but it offers significance beyond its local community, Kober said. “The Elwha is resonating and connecting with people nationally. It’s shown people how fast these rivers can come back and it’s getting people to talk about the benefits of removing dams.”