The largest dam removal project in U. S. history is now underway in and near Olympic National Park, and six new webcams will allow viewing of the project from anywhere in the world.
The removal project officially got underway with a ceremony on September 17, 2011, although work on one of the two dams involved in the multi-year effort actually began two days earlier.
The Elwha River, which had the largest watershed in Olympic National Park, flows northward from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the town of Port Angeles, Washington. Private companies constructed two large dams on the river during the early 1900’s.
Elwha Dam, a 105-foot high concrete gravity dam, forms Lake Aldwell eight miles upstream from the river's mouth. Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927, is a 210-foot high concrete arch dam that forms Lake Mills 13 miles upstream from the mouth of the river.
Proposals to remove the dams and restore the river to natural conditions sparked years of controversy. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, "When the dams were first built, they were significant producers of electricity on the Olympic Peninsula. Today, the dams …generate about 40 percent of the electricity needs for the Diashowa America paper mill in Port Angeles, Washington. These two large dams have no facilities for the upstream passage of anadromous fish and their removal would provide an opportunity to restore an entire watershed to near natural conditions."
That opportunity has been the driving force behind the removal project. Proponents note restoration of the Elwha River will return the river "to its natural free-flowing state, allowing all five species of Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish to once again reach habitat and spawning grounds. Supporters of the work include the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which cites the project's economic, cultural and spiritual benefits."
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar joined federal, state and local officials on September 17 to celebrate the beginning of the Elwha River restoration project. “This Restoration project is a testament to what can happen when diverse groups find a way to work together and achieve shared goals of restoration for a river, a people, an ecosystem, and a national park,” said National Park Service Director Jarvis.
Salazar noted that the river restoration will help support the culture of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who have lived along the river for centuries. Tribal members will again have access to sacred sites now inundated and the opportunity to renew important cultural traditions.
Biologists estimate that salmon populations will swell from 3,000 to more than 300,000 as five species of Pacific salmon return to more than 70 miles of river and stream. The return of these fish will bring bear, eagles, and other animals back to the unique ecosystem that has been deprived of a vital food source since 1911 when the Elwha Dam was constructed.
“Construction of the dams left sacred and historical tribal sites underwater, ignoring Treaty-reserved fishing rights and disenfranchising tribal members who depended upon the River for subsistence, and economic and cultural sustenance,” said Assistant Secretary Echo Hawk. “With the removal of the dams, the healing and renewal process can begin.”
A park spokesperson says webcams have been placed facing both the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, the deltas at the southern ends of the Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills reservoirs, and along the northern shore of each reservoir. While the primary purpose of the webcams is to monitor the process of sediment movement, viewers will be able to get a direct view of each dam as the removal process progresses.
“This week’s start of dam removal and the ongoing restoration work on the river has generated interest regionally, nationally and even internationally. We think this is a unique and effective way to reach out to people interested in the Elwha River and its restoration,” said Olympic National Park Superintendent Karen Gustin. “Olympic National Park is pleased to see these cameras go online this week. Please visit the webcam page and check back regularly to keep track of these exciting changes.”
(Tips for using the webcam page: you can click on the link under the photo for each site to open a slideshow from the webcams. To view the latest webcam images, click on the "check out our Dashboard" link" near the top of the page, then click on the photos for each site on the right-hand side of that page. You'll need the Microsoft Silverlight program to view those images.)