Passionately written story of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. The project is helping restore huge salmon runs as well as ecosystems left damaged by the 100 year old infrastructure project.
As the last block of concrete was pulled from the riverbed, the Elwha River in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State flowed freely for the first time in over 100 years. The river was historically one of the most productive salmon streams for its size in the Pacific Northwest. Four hundred thousand salmon once swam its length each year but, in the century since the dam’s construction, that number had fallen to a few thousand.
Within months of the dam’s removal, nature has rushed back: over 200 salmon have already returned. The prospect of a river teeming with silverbacked salmon weighing over 45 kilograms each may no longer remain a hazy memory of local Native American tribes.
The Elwha dam removal project stands as one of the first large dams ever removed. The intent of removing the dams is to fully restore the Elwha River ecosystem and its native migratory fish species. In doing so, the Elwha dam project revived the debate of how to balance the conflicting demands of humans for both clean energy and healthy ecosystems.
Previously, that debate has been weighted decisively in favor of dam projects. But with a greater understanding of the value of ecosystem services, the Elwha dam project may represent the start of a revolution in how we assess the West’s aging dam infrastructure.