From: Eric Johnson, Reuters, PORT ANGELES, Wash
Published September 19, 2011 06:21 AM

The Salmon are happy, Largest dam removal in U.S. history begins in Washington

As a child, Adeline Smith, an elder in the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe who grew up along the Elwha River, saw how a hulking concrete dam choked off one of the most prolific salmon runs on earth.


Some 300,000 salmon, some weighing up to 99 pounds, once migrated from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a Pacific Ocean outlet, into the Elwha River to spawn and die.

"They are killing the fish, and they are taking away from our culture and our eating the fish," Smith, 94, told Reuters.

Her testimony helped spur an act of Congress, the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992, signed by President George H.W. Bush, which sought to return the roughly 45-mile river to its free-flowing state.

Some 25 years later, Smith and 100 tribal members joined Washington Governor Chris Gregoire and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to watch as the first concrete was scooped away from the Elwha Dam over the weekend as part of the largest dam removal in U.S. history.

The dam removal includes the Elwha's two dams -- the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and the 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam. It will cost roughly $27 million and take three years, said Don Laford, the project's construction manager.

The Elwha Dam, finished in 1913, helped bring electricity to the nascent milling town of Port Angeles. But it was built without a so-called fish ladder, a modern tool that allows migrating fish like salmon to traverse dams. Instead, salmon were forced to stop at the concrete wall and fruitlessly swim in circles looking for passage.

Historic salmon populations numbered more than 300,000 fish, according to tribal and park services estimates. They have fallen to roughly 3,000. The restoration project hopes to bring back fish to that initial level.

Among the custom-built dam's other shortcomings were its minimal production levels by today's standards, generating just 40 percent of the power needed to run the mill in Port Angeles and requiring expensive custom parts for repairs.

Photo credit: USGS

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