by Derek Jones

We erect dams assuming they are eternal, as if they’ll never topple over or be dismantled or fill with sediment or lose their financial rationale. Yet all dams will die. . . They’ll be reminders of an ancient time when humans believed they could vanquish nature, and found themselves vanquished instead.

— Jacques Leslie, from “Deep Water, the Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment”

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY if I asked if you knew that the nation’s second largest ecological restoration project was happening right now only a 2 ½ hour drive from Seattle? Would you be able to name the project? If given a map of the Puget Sound Region, would you be able to point out where the Elwha River is? How many of your students could do the same? The removal of two dams on the Elwha River provides students with a fascinating case study that contains elements of a wide swath of topics covered in, and out of, the classroom; engineering, social studies, ecology, mathematics, history, and geology among others. It is up to educators to make sure that such an enormous and complex project with such far-reaching implications does not go by without being appropriately utilized as a teaching tool.

elwhadamThe most effective way to keep interest in the dam removal project high is to keep it in the public consciousness. This can be done in many ways, but one of the most effective is through continued education. Keeping the public aware of what is happening is essential. It is far too easy to let a lengthy restoration project slip out of sight and out of mind as the years pass. A 10-year old today will be a 16-year old high school student when the dam removal project reaches it’s currently scheduled completion in 2015 (although this date has repeatedly changed and may be pushed back further). Today’s elementary school students will be the ones living in the post-Elwha dam world and watching as one of the most ambitious ecological restorations ever undertaken is completed.

Unfortunately, almost all of the existing educational materials and programs pertaining to the Elwha restoration are for middle school and older children. The only elementary school-age program is through the Olympic Park Institute located in the Olympic National Park just outside of Port Angeles. Regardless of the efficacy of this program, it is simply not practical for most area students to participate for many reasons including cost and accessibility. What are needed are materials for training elementary school teachers to teach with confidence about the Elwha and all the intricacies surrounding the removal project. A concerted effort needs to be made so that a project of such enormous potential and such amazing scope does not happen without our students actively following the process. Neglecting to teach about such a project would be akin to neglecting to teach about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens as it was happening. Obviously the scale here is smaller, but the impacts and the opportunities are just as great.

In a 1998 speech to the Ecological Society of America in the waning days of summer, then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit offered his vision of a future without dams. Babbit stated his case by saying, “Dams are not America’s answer to the pyramids of Egypt. We did not build them for religious purposes and they do not consecrate our values (even if some are named after Presidents). Dams do, in fact, outlive their function.”1 Large dams (generally classified as six feet and higher) everywhere have come under siege by the recent surge in the movement for their removal. In Yosemite National Park, the removal of the O’Shaughnessy Dam has received support from as unlikely a source as Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger2, and in Washington State, the numerous and enormous dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers are finding that they are not immune to the push for removal. With approximately 75,0003 large dams in the United States, we are faced with a decision that will set the standard for our attitudes toward progress, and the monuments we’ve built to it, for years to come.

Despite the growing support for the removal of large dams, proponents are left without a true success story to hang their hats on. To this date, the largest removal has been on the Kennebec River in Maine. This was a successful project, but it was nothing near the scale of the O’Shaughnessy Dam. In order to find such a project, one needs look no further than the Elwha River in Olympic National Park. Two dams currently reside on the Elwha; the Elwha Dam and the larger Glines Canyon Dam. Glines Canyon dam and its associated reservoir became a part of Olympic National Park when its boundaries were expanded in 1940. Built in 1912 and 1926 respectively, these dams helped facilitate the development of the Olympic Peninsula and brought industry and prosperity to one of the last frontiers of American settlement. Their effect on the region was not completely benign, however. The dams were illegal at the time of their construction because they provided no fish passage, and as a result, reduced one of the largest runs of salmon on the peninsula to a shadow of its former abundance. From 1912 on, no anadromous fish have been able to migrate above the lower 4.9 miles of the river, effectively cutting of the entire upper watershed, which covers about 321 square miles4. The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the removal of the two dams sums up the effects of the dams on the local ecology and economy as follows:


Before and after dam removal (simulated).

The dams block the migration path for several species of salmon and trout, which, after maturing in the ocean, return to the Elwha to lay their eggs (spawn). Migrating fish such as these are anadromous. The dams also prevent or limit the downstream flow of nutrients, sediment, and woody debris the fish need to successfully spawn and rear juveniles, inundate fish habitat and result in elevated temperatures downstream. The Elwha River was used by 10 runs of salmon and trout before the dams were built. The fish fed more than 22 species of wildlife and were the basis of much of the culture and economy of the Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe.5

Organized opposition to the dams began as early as 1976, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) served notice that the owner of the two Elwha dams, then the Crown Zellerbach Corporation, was applying to relicense the dams. This drew immediate attention from both the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the National Park Service (NPS), both of which asserted that FERC had no jurisdiction to license a dam within a national park. Both groups were granted intervener status, thus beginning a long battle over the dams that culminated with the passage by Congress of the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992, also known as Public Law 102-495.

To this day, this act serves as the most important document in the effort to remove the Elwha River dams. The act authorized then Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbit, to acquire the Elwha dams contingent upon the determination “that removal of the Project dams is necessary for the full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and native anadromous fisheries and that funds for that purpose will be available for such removal within two years after acquisition.”6 Immediate plans were set forth to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to determine the best method of fisheries restoration in the watershed. In 1996, the Final EIS was published, and the determination was made to remove the dams with the assertion that removal would restore native anadromous fish to the Elwha River.

The initial timeline for the project had the dam removal beginning in 2008. That has since been pushed back to 2012 with completion in 2015. However, the project doesn’t end there. When the dams are removed, dealing with the sediment release alone could take many years, not to mention the re-vegetation efforts that need to take place on the newly exposed soils. Because of the enormous amount of sedimentation behind both dams, they will have to be removed from the top down. This will be done in several stages, with sections of both dams being removed at the same time. By removing the dams simultaneously, the number of pulses of sedimentation will be cut in half, reducing the possible negative effects on the downstream ecosystem. Once the dams are gone, researchers are hinging their hopes on the fact that salmon appear to be quite aggressive colonizers. Several studies have shown that salmon are very willing and capable of colonizing newly opened habitat. When the Landsburg Dam on the Cedar River just outside of Seattle was modified to allow fish passage in 2003, the number of salmon found above stream increased from 47 the first year to 170 in 20057, a nearly fourfold increase in only two years. Estimates of the size of the post-dam runs vary with some as high as 400,0008. Even conservative estimates would be an improvement over the zero fish that make it past the dams as they now stand.

Dams embody America’s greatest hopes and dreams. They helped provide the energy and water to build the West in the early twentieth century. Dams brought agriculture to the Columbia Basin and electricity to the aluminum manufacturers that were so essential to the war effort in World War II. Had the dams never been built, our reliance on fossil fuels would surely be greater to the detriment of the entire region. However, the dams also destroyed an essential relationship that the Elwha people had with their river and removed an enormously important nutrient input from the ecosystem. The need for education about dam removal is just as pressing now as it was 17 years ago. There is still an enormous amount of misunderstanding about what the project entails and what it means to remove a dam. The real-world scope of the project is enormous. Fifty or even one hundred years from now we will still be observing the affects of the dam removal. Because of this, students educated now have the unique and unprecedented ability to watch the unfolding of one of the greatest restoration projects in United States history. The dam removal has the potential to reshape how we view our relationship with the environment in the Pacific Northwest. It gives us a chance to untie some of the knots of the often tangled web of history that we have woven. Let us ensure that we learn from the mistakes and the triumphs of the project and let us also hope that this will not be the last or the least of our monuments to progress that we can watch disappear.

1 Restore Hetch Hetchy. “Bruce Babbit on Dams.” Speech by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, Ecological Society of America, August 4, 1998.
2 Sample, Herbert A., “State to examine Hetch Hetchy Restoration,” Sacramento Bee, Politics, Nov. 12, 2004.
3 There is no direct source for this figure. Most estimates range from 60,000 to 80,000, with the majority falling in at around 75,000. In his speech, Babbit quoted the figure of 74,993, but it is certain that the exact number cannot be obtained. Babbit also stated that these 74,993 dams block 600,000 miles (approximately 17%) of all the rivers in the country. Again, where he obtained these numbers is unclear.
4 U.S. Department of the Interior. Final Environmental Impact Statement: Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration. June 1995.
5 U.S. Congress. Senate. Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. 102nd Cong., 2nd sess., January 3, 1992.
6 U.S. Department of the Interior. Final Environmental Impact Statement: Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration. June 1995.
7 Anderson, Joseph H. 2006. Colonization of newly accessible habitat by coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch). 2006.
8 Gottlieb, Paul., “Will 100-pound salmon return to Elwha?,” Seattle Times, Local News, May 24, 2010.

Derek Jones is a graduate student at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island, Washington.


Additional Resources:

  • Exploring Dam Removal: A decision-making guide (pdf link)
  • Paying for Dam Removal: A guide to selected funding sources (pdf link)
  • The Ecology of Dam Removal: A summary of benefits and impacts (pdf link)