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Two Down... Dambusting on the Elwha
Alex Steffen, 6 Aug 04

Dams are a fish nightmare. Here in the Northwest, where salmon are not only totemic but ecologically and economically vital, and where dams have all but wiped out scores of once massive salmon runs, dam removal is seen by many as the ultimate tool in the ecological restoration toolbox.

I used to be a fan of rippin' em all out. Now I see more complexity to the situation. Leaving aside the way in which the alter the ecology of the river which run through them, hydropower dams provide abundant and clean energy in this part of the world. In a very real sense, dams and gold made the Northwest, as Woody Guthrie sang:

"Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

"Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through
Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew
Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue
Roll on Columbia, roll on..."

Given that history, and current political and technological realities, I now find it unlikely that we'll be pulling many of the Columbia (or Snake) River dams any time soon. The power they generate simply outweighs the uncertain benefits for fish recovery.

But other dams' time has come. Top of the list? The two dams on the Elwha River, which runs from Olympic National Park to the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

Those dams were built to power a now-defunct pulp and paper mill, and generate relatively power. They do, however, block what appears to still be potentially excellent salmon habitat.

Accordingly, today the Federal government and the local Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe signed an historic agreement to blow the dams and restore the Elwha River to a wild state. The $182 million project will begin demolition and restoration in 2008, aiming eventually to fully restore the 500,000-strong runs of salmon that once filled the Elwha's waters.

Along the way, we'll learn some incredible lessons about how to do restoration right at extremely large scales. These aren't the first dams removed in the US, but they are the biggest removed so far; and the Elwha isn't the first river we've attempted to restore, but as a mostly unpolluted river running through a huge national park, the potential gains are unparalleled.

If we're gonna make it through these next couple decades, we're going to be doing a lot more work rebuilding and restoring big natural systems. The Elwha will be one of the classrooms in which we learn our business.

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My wife and I have hiked in the upper Elwha valley several times. We can't get there very often (we live in the Atlanta area), but if you live in the Northwest, don't miss it. The canyon above the lake is amazing. I recommend exploring the upper Elwha to anyone who appreciates wilderness and nature.

Posted by: Myke on 6 Aug 04

Yes!!!! As a wilderness-loving Seattleite I am a big fan of dam removal. This is a big step up from the Icicle Creek project, and I'm happy they're finally going through with it.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 6 Aug 04

Hayduke lives!!!

Posted by: Richard on 8 Aug 04

This is good news. Just one small step toward restoring the PNW wild salmon population.

Posted by: conrad on 9 Aug 04

I disagree completely. The big dams on the columbia, now that they are there, provide the cleanest power in the entire country. Removing them would not only be an ecological nightmare but also a tragedy for the green power movement.

Humans, simply by existing, are going to make some kind of mark on the ecology. Given our power generation needs, I'd far rather see clean hydro propagate more than coal or nuclear, both now and in the future.

The flood control benefits alone justify the dams on the Columbia, anyway. Take a tour of the McLoughlin House or Champoeg park and note the floodmarks. Such a flood today in the greater portland area would be devastating.

Posted by: Howard on 9 Aug 04

(Not disagreeing with Alex per se, but with the general idea of pulling PNW dams out now being a good idea)

Posted by: Howard on 9 Aug 04



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