The world’s biggest dam removal project — and the second-largest environmental restoration project in U.S. history — is in progress on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.
The Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam blocking the Elwha River are coming down due to aging infrastructure and as part of an effort to restore fish runs. When the dams were built in the early 1900s to provide hydroelectric power to nearby residents, they were installed without a way for fish to pass. Ever since, prime habitat upstream on the Elwha has been inaccessible to salmon.
Environmental reporter Katie Campbell of KCTS9 in Seattle has been tracking the ecosystem restoration in conjunction with the dam removals on the Elwha. Deconstruction began this past September, and it will take up to three years to completely remove the dams. Rather than knocking out the dams with dynamite, construction teams are breaking them into sections, digging them out, and hauling them away.
Campbell recently went out with a team of scientists and members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to report on the first coho salmon to be reintroduced into the upper reaches of the Elwha River. In an interview with Hari Sreenivasan, Campbell explained that there were once hundreds of thousands of salmon, but now numbers have dropped to critical levels.
Hundreds of hydropower dams across the country are slated for removal as they deteriorate and as concern for disappearing species grows. “All eyes on the Elwha, to see what lessons we can learn here about taking out large dams and to see what happens to an ecosystem when you take these large structures out of it,” said Campbell.
Watch a time lapse of the first months of deconstruction on each of the dams: