On June 1, 2011, nearly two decades after Congress called for full restoration of the Elwha River and its fish runs, federal workers turned off the generators at the 1913 Dam powerhouse and set in motion the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Contractors will begin dismantling the Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam this fall, a $324.7 million project that will take about three years and will eventually allow the 45-mile Elwha River to run free as it courses from the Olympic mountains through the old growth forests into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
This is certainly a worthy cause we can all applaud; however, it seems inconsistent that our government is eliminating power generating plants when we are in the midst of an energy shortage. We are importing millions of barrels of oil per year and paying an excess of $4.00/gallon at the gas pumps. The oil is imported from countries that often do not share our values and tolerate extremist causes associated with terrorism. Can we trust our government to engage in a rational and evenhanded cost benefit analysis before eliminating relatively inexpensive sources of domestic energy generation? When closely examined, the elimination of these two dams does not seem to drastically affect the regional power picture.
The 105′ Elwha Dam came on line in 1913, followed 14 years later by the 210′ Glines Canyon Dam eight miles upstream. The two dams, located in the Olympic Nation Forest, provided years of electricity to a local pulp and paper mill in the growing city of Port Angeles. Though state law required that fish passages be built in the dams, none were constructed and all five native species of Pacific salmon and other fish that mature in the ocean and return to rivers to spawn were confined to the lower five miles of the river. Most of the river lies within the protected boundaries of the Olympic National Park. Scientists say that the Elwha river restoration project presents a unique opportunity to study how a river recovers once dam-free. Researchers will study how salmon return to the river, how their return will benefit wildlife such as bears and eagles, and how the estuary will be reshaped when the sediment trapped behind the dams is released.
There is an excess of 24 million cubic yards of sediment deposited in Lake Mills and the artificial lake behind Glines Canyon Dam and Lake Aldwell, the lake behind the Elwha Dam. While a plan exists to deal with the sediment other than to allow it to flow into the estuary, that plan was not disclosed to news sources. When the reservoirs are drained, 800 aces of barren land will be exposed. Park botanists and volunteers are busy transplanting and potting various native species along the river since 2002, and the first of 15,000 plants will be put in this fall. Overall, more than 400,000 plants will be used to restore a forested ecosystem to keep out exotic species and prevent erosion.
The dams are owned by the U.S. government (Bureau of Reclamation), which has operated the powerhouses since 2000.