Vast amounts of river-borne sediment are trapped behind the world’s large dams, depriving areas downstream of material that is badly needed to build up the marshes and wetlands that act as a buffer against rising seas.
In September 2011, after 20 years of planning, workers began dismantling the Elwha and Glines dams on the Elwha River in northwestern Washington state. At the time, it was the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, and it took nearly three years for both barriers to be dismantled and for the river to once again flow freely.
Over the course of their nearly century-long lives, the two dams collected more than 24 million cubic yards of sediment behind them, enough to fill the Seattle Seahawks football stadium eight times. And since their removal, the Elwha has taken back the trapped sediment and distributed it downstream, causing the riverine ecosystem to be rebuilt and transformed. Massive quantities of silt, sand, and gravel have been carried to the coast, resurrecting a wetlands ecosystem long deprived of sediment.
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