From the remaining crest of the almost-demolished Glines Canyon dam you can look out past a curving row of 1920s concrete light standards to the Elwha River, snaking through cliffs of gray sediment that once lay at the bottom of Lake Mills. One could call this scene a "moonscape," but it's framed by second-growth forest above the old lake shore, swallows swoop across the remaining dam face and perch on low metal railings, and the river leads the eye south to snowcapped Olympic Mountain peaks.
The Elwha, which drains 20 percent of what is now Olympic National Park, flows north into the Strait of Juan de Fuca just west of Port Angeles. At least six species of salmon and trout once spawned in its watershed. Runs of pink salmon reached 100,000 fish. Individual chinook reached 100 pounds. Members of the Klallam tribe harvested the fish for centuries.
Lake Mills was formed by the dam in 1927. It was drawn down in 2010 and 2011, before demolition of the much lower and slightly older Elwha dam began downriver. Lake Aldwell, created by the lower dam, was drawn down, too. Sediment — held up behind the two dams since the presidencies of William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge — gushed downstream.
From a bridge just below the Glines Canyon dam, you can see sediment and small cobble and big logs along the river banks where a few years ago, when logs and all the particles were trapped behind the dams, only large stones lay. The water is still gray with sediment. It will remain gray for the next couple of years, until the river has washed down as much of the old lake bed as it is likely to take. The murky water isn't ideal for fish, but the sediment load has passed the point at which people worry about the salmon. Last fall, chinook spawned in that rushing water that fills the narrow canyon right below Glines Canyon Dam.
By now, the dam is almost entirely gone, except for the intact ends, which don't block the channel and from which you can look down 200 feet into the abyss where the center once stood. They will be retained as viewing platforms. When a crane scoops the last concrete from the river this September, spawning salmon will be able to make their way all the way up the river in the protected habitat of Olymmpic National Park.
The Elwha River has become internationally known as the site of the largest river restoration project ever. It stars in the new feature-length documentary DamNation, which will show on May 18 and two later dates at the Seattle International Film Festival. The film, sponsored partly by the outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, places Elwha restoration in the context of a growing movement to remove old American dams.
When Congress first voted to take out the Elwha dams back in 1992, dam removal seemed a radical idea. By now, Patagonia founder and the film's executive producer Yves Chouinard wrote recently in The New York Times, "The message has been slowly spreading around the country. More and more communities and states have reclaimed rivers lost to jackhammers and concrete."
Planned demolition — by explosives, giant jackhammers, or both — is not at all the fate we have traditionally imagined for dams. In his poem, "Summer Holiday," Robinson Jeffers envisioned a future in which cities would be reduced to "stains of rust on mounds of plaster" but one would still see "a concrete dam far off in the mountain."
Not in the Olympic Mountains, it turns out. Now, the Elwha figures in a new kind of domino theory. The phrase stems from the idea used to justify the American intervention in Vietnam, which held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, the other countries could fall in automatic succession just like a row of dominos toppling each other. That turned out to be the wrong way to think about Southeast Asian politics, but maybe it's the right way to think about American dams. One fall of an old concrete power dam may not inevitably lead to the next, but it certainly makes the next look plausible, setting the stage for a decision that 20 years ago would never have been made. As University of Washington geologist David Montgomery says in the film, "radical ideas [have become] conventional."
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!