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Elwha River Restoration

Imagine a River Literally Coming Back to Life.

One of the most significant river restoration effort of our time will soon begin on Washington’s Elwha River. Two large dams will be dismantled to restore the river’s once-legendary salmon runs, and to revive an entire ecosystem from the mountains to the sea.

The river’s Glines Canyon Dam (210 feet) will be the tallest dam ever removed in our country.


The River

Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River, by Scott Church

The Elwha is a short, steep river, tumbling 45 miles from the mountainous heart of Olympic National Park down to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It once supported six species of Pacific salmon and steelhead, and has been the home of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe since time immemorial.

The construction of Elwha Dam (1913) and Glines Canyon Dam (1927) devastated the river’s salmon runs, cutting off all but five miles of habitat in the lower river. Fish populations plummeted and have been on life-support ever since. Without the annual infusion of marine nutrients that salmon bring upriver from the ocean, the wildlife and ecosystem have suffered. Additionally, the dams prevent the downstream flow of important silt and other sediments, causing steady beach erosion at the river’s mouth and the loss of important historic clam beds.

A River Reborn

Chum salmon by Brett Cole

Dismantling the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams will allow the river to flow freely for the first time in 100 years. Salmon and steelhead will gain renewed access to over 70 miles of pristine, protected habitat in the river and its tributaries.

A host of birds and wildlife will benefit from the increased salmon runs. The river will once again be able to transport gravel, silt and sediment to replenish lower river and beach habitat.

Trees and other vegetation will grow in the areas around the former reservoirs, creating habitat for Roosevelt elk and other forest wildlife.

How Will the Dams be Removed?

Elwha Dam and Lake Aldwell

Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam will be removed in stages over the course of several years.

At Elwha Dam, a diversion channel will be built around the dam’s north side. The water in Lake Aldwell will drain out through this diversion channel, lowering the lake level by about 50 feet. Construction crews will then use “controlled blasting” to dismantle Elwha Dam and also remove the rock fill that was used to patch a large hole in the base of the dam in 1913.

Glines Canyon Dam, twice the height of Elwha Dam, will be removed in 7.5 foot increments, gradually whittled down from the top using diamond wire saw cutting to isolate large sections of concrete. These 22-ton blocks will be winched by crane to disposal trucks situated on the cliff tops adjoining the dam.

Much of the water behind this dam will be released using an existing outlet pipe, followed by successive notches in the remaining concrete. Once the water level behind the dam drops down to the bed of the reservoir, the remaining portions of the dam will be removed with controlled blasting. About 40 percent of the silt and sand behind this dam will be carried downstream -- scientists expect this to be washed out to the ocean within 3-5 years.

In Depth: A Second Chance for the Elwha and its Salmon

In earlier times, the Elwha River flowed freely and supported legendary runs of Pacific salmon.  Coho, pink, chum and sockeye, as well as spring, summer and fall Chinook made their way upstream in numbers that neared 400,000, with individual Chinook sometimes exceeding 100 pounds.  Sea-run cutthroat trout, native char, and winter and summer runs of steelhead also swam in these waters.

Historic photo of Glines Canyon Dam construction

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe thrived in the area, thanks to the river’s large salmon runs and the watershed’s abundant natural resources.

Between 1910 and 1927, the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were built to provide hydroelectric power to a mill in the north Olympic Peninsula town of Port Angeles.  Both structures were built without fish passage facilities, cutting salmon and steelhead off from historic spawning habitat. 

Dam Facts

Elwha Dam, completed in 1913, is a 108-foot high concrete gravity dam located at river mile 4.9.  It has gated spillways on both abutments and no fish passage facilities.  A powerhouse contains four generating units with a combined capacity of 14.8 MW. The dam impounds Lake Aldwell, which has a surface area of 267 acres and a storage capacity of 8,100 acre-feet.

Glines Canyon Dam, completed in 1927, is a 210-foot high single-arch concrete structure located at river mile 13.  It has a thrust block on the right abutment, a gated spillway on the left, and no fish passage facilities.  A powerhouse with one generator has a capacity of 13.3 MW. The dam impounds Lake Mills, which has a surface area of 415 acres and a storage capacity of 40,500 acre-feet.

Impacts of the Dams

Elwha Dam and Lake Aldwell, photo by National Park Service

Since their construction, the damage caused by the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams has been far-reaching.  Salmon and steelhead populations in the river have been considerably reduced.  Only about 4,000 salmon now spawn in the 4.9 miles of river below Elwha Dam. 

In addition to decimating the river’s salmon runs, the dams also struck a long-term blow to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe who rely on the salmon and river for their physical, spiritual and cultural well-being.

The harm caused by the dams has reverberated throughout the entire ecosystem. The dams and their associated reservoirs inundated and degraded over five miles of river and 684 acres of lowland and forest habitat. The river itself has been degraded through increased temperatures, reduced nutrients and reduced spawning gravels downstream.

Populations of at least 22 species of wildlife, including bald eagle, black bear, bobcat, coyote, raccoon, weasel, mink and river otter within the Elwha basin have declined due to a lack of salmon carcasses, an important food for source. Even Puget Sound’s orca whales are suffering because of diminished salmon runs in the Elwha and other Pacific Northwest rivers.

The Road to Removal

Aerial view of Elwha River

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has been advocating for dam removal since the dams were built nearly a century ago. The Tribe was the first to call for the restoration of the river and its salmon. In addition to advocating for dam removal, the Tribe has led habitat restoration efforts in the lower river, and operates a hatchery to maintain Elwha salmon runs.

The Tribe seized the opportunity in 1968, when the owner and operator of the dams, Crown Zellerbach Corporation, submitted an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to license Elwha Dam, and then applied in 1973 to renew the operating license for Glines Canyon Dam. The Tribe intervened before FERC, opposing the licenses.

The environmental community also got involved. Rick Rutz, a volunteer activist with the Mountaineers, noted that the Federal Power Act of 1921 prohibits hydroelectric dams in national parks. He argued that the expiration of the 50-year license of Glines Canyon Dam (inside the boundaries of Olympic National Park, which was created in 1938) should be treated as a new license application, and that Elwha Dam should not be licensed.

Spurred by Rick's argument, four conservation groups -- Olympic Park Associates, Seattle Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth -- intervened in the relicensing process. Twelve other conservation groups, including American Rivers, soon joined the effort.

In 1987 James River Corporation (now called Fort James Corporation) purchased the assets of Crown Zellerbach, including the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams and the Port Angeles pulp and paper mill.  The mill was later sold to Daishowa America Co., Ltd.  Until February 2000, the Fort James Corporation owned the two dams and Daishowa operated the two dams and associated power plants. Daishowa received power from the dams for the operation of the mill.  

The dams’ owner became increasingly concerned that a court order would some day force it to remove the dams and foot the bill for river restoration. They began to view the dams as a liability and started looking for ways to transfer them to the federal government.

Elwha River Ecosystems and Fisheries Restoration Act

Elwha River by Scott Church

In 1992, Congress passed Public Law 102-495, the Elwha River Ecosystems and Fisheries Restoration Act (Act). The Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to study ways to fully restore the Elwha River ecosystem and native anadromous fisheries.  Purchase and removal of the dams was one of the considerations.

The Elwha Report, submitted by the Secretary of the Interior, determined that removing the dams was feasible and necessary to fully restore the fisheries and ecosystem.

In February 2000, the federal government purchased the dams and related facilities from the Fort James Corporation for $29.5 million. The Bureau of Reclamation, with National Park Service oversight, currently operates the dams. Operation will continue until the dams are decommissioned and removed. The modest amount of power generated by the two dams is no longer needed, thanks to alternate supplies from the Northwest power grid.

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $54 million for the removal of the Elwha River dams. This important infusion of funding will allow dam removal to begin in 2011.

Benefits of Dam Removal

Removing both dams will open over 70 miles of pristine salmon habitat.  With 83 percent of the Elwha watershed protected within Olympic National Park, salmon have an especially high chance for recovery.  The restored, free-flowing river is estimated to produce approximately 390,000 salmon and steelhead in about 30 years, compared with less than 50,000 fish if the dams were fitted with upstream and downstream fish passage facilities.

The November 1996 Final EIS found that significant economic benefits estimated at $164 million over the 100 years following dam removal will be realized through increased recreation, tourism, and sport fishing. 

Ultimately, it is impossible to put a price tag on a healthy river and thriving salmon runs.

For the lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and for all of the people who will benefit from and enjoy the restored Elwha, the economic benefits are just part of the picture. The many cultural, spiritual, recreational and quality of life benefits a restored Elwha River will bring to the community and to future generations will be valuable beyond measure.