From: Robin Blackstone, ENN
Published October 14, 2013 12:01 PM

Freeing the Elwha!

Exciting and dramatic changes have taken place in the Elwha River in the last two years with the removal of two dams. The Glines Canyon Dam (1927) and the Elwha Dam (1910) were removed to restore the watershed’s ecology unblocking passage for migratory salmon. Salmon have already begun to find their way up the newly freed river. Since the time of their building many things have changed about our understanding of river system ecology causing an ever-increasing movement to remove them.  The Elwha River dam removal project is currently the largest one in history.



With the major elements of the actual dams dismantled in 2011 and 2013, focus is now being placed on the removal and movement of the sediment formerly built up and housed behind the dam structure. Hydrologists, ecologists and biologists watch with fascination. Project planning though began nearly a decade ago. Considerations included sediment removal and movement, reservoir and bank erosion, water temperatures, plant and aquatic animal repopulation, oceanic conditions and human impact.

Two reservoirs once poised behind the dams have now been drained. These reservoirs had held back waters creating a warmer freshwater climate throughout the watershed affecting the natural environment for fish and plants.

The complexion of the new river includes a newly restored sand and gravel bed with braided reaches important for salmon. Additionally, free moving water is cooler accommodating the needs of aquatic life indigenous to the area. The sand and silt has moved to the delta creating a more prominent Elwha drift cell, starved for the last century. The release of the silt and clay has caused much anticipated turbity and nearshore sedimentation. 

Ongoing field studies monitor the topography as nearly a century of the sediment finds its way into new areas of the landscape. Oceanic changes are also evident at the river enters into the Puget Sound. Sediment enters the ocean as a buoyant surface plume, settles to the seabed where it is picked up in the oceanic tidal cycle.

The United States currently has about 84,000 dams. By 2020, 70 percent of them will be more than 50 years old. Decisions are currently being made as to their continued benefit and viability.  Many are at risk for failure setting in motion plans to repair, remove or replace them. Additionally many of the oldest ones never were licensed because they were built before standards were established. To date more than 500 dams have been removed, with many more to go. Monitoring the progress and effects of the Elwha River restoration will benefit other systems whose future is also at stake.

Read more about the freeing of the Elwha River at the Washington Post, Yale Environment 360 and the Coastal Watershed Institute.

Jumping Salmon photo via Shutterstock.

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