I missed the Oct. 26 breaching of the 98-year-old Condit Dam down on the White Salmon River, but I did watch the movie (actually, the video), and the other day, I took a real-life look at the Elwha River restoration project. A little west of Port Angeles, I walked down a short trail through some cedars to an overlook from which I could see the river, swollen from the drawdowns of lakes Aldwell and Mills, thundering down the bedrock cascade of the diversion channel beside the old Elwha Dam site. /a huge jackhammer on the end of a crane boom hammered at chunks of concrete; two big excavators loaded shovels full of silt and rubble into the beds of yellow Volvo dump trucks, which then crawled across a narrow temporary bridge and labored up the steep dirt road out of the canyon.
Trees were turning color along the old lake shore, now high above the water. Stumps of the old forest were visible above what was left of the lake. One of the excavators was scooping silt from the old channel, getting down to the river bed that used to be.
The 108-foot dam, with its weathered pre-World-War-I concrete, looked, not long ago, like a permanent a part of the landscape, much like the gray rock on which it stood. But now it was gone. The penstocks and power house remain, but eventually, they'll be gone, too. Forget Roman aqueducts, Mayan pyramids, the Great Wall of China — a large masonry structure doesn't have to be forever.
In 1992, when Congress first voted to take out the two Elwha River dams (ifthe Secretary of the Interior decided that dam removal was the best way to restore the Elwha's salmon and ecosystem), tearing them out seemed revolutionary. Now, it seems part of a trend, although one that seems to have more happening rather than being planned out along any clear model.
Dam removal has captured headlines well beyond the borders of Washington state. Since the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River bit the dust in 1999, more than 400 dams have been cleared from America's rivers and streams. Two years ago, the Savage Rapids Dam was taken out of the Rogue River, which it had blocked since 1921. Two years before that, the Marmot Dam was removed from the Sandy. Two years ago, the federal government, the states of Oregon and California, Indian tribes, environmental and economic interest groups agreed with the owner, PacifiCorp (which is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, which is largely owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway), on a process to — maybe — take out four hydro dams that block the Klamath River.
And then there is the Elwha, which — unless and until the Klamath dams come out, which at best won't happen before 2020 — is the biggest dam removal project in America's, or perhaps anyone else's, history.
Once upon a time, chinook, sockeye, coho, pink and chum salmon, plus steelhead, bull and cutthroat trout all swam up the Elwha to spawn in what is now the Olympic National Park. A quarter-million pink salmon crowded the river in good years. Individual chinook weighed 100 pounds. Now, distant descendants of those fish may once again swim in the 65 miles of river above the lower dam. Park visitors will be able to see them spawning (something they can't see in any other national park outside Alaska). Once they've spawned, critters of many kinds will be able to eat them. (It was research on another Olympic Peninsula river that first proved a wide array of animals, from bears to birds to deer, ate or at least nibbled salmon carcasses.)
And yet, there is this: dam removal may be chic, but the Elwha's budding success story does not provide a template for removing dams or restoring salmon runs anywhere else. Taking out the Elwha dams has required decades of planning and expenditure, but when push came to shove, it was pretty simple: No big economic interests hung in the balance. The dams supplied some of the power to a single Port Angeles paper mill, and kept silt out of an intake that supplied some municipal and industrial water to the city of Port Angeles. The dams' owner, Crown Zellerbach, which also owned the mill (since acquired by Nippon Paper Industries USA), was potentially liable for either installing fish passage or taking out the dams.
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