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Field Notes: a Northwest nature blog

One of the reasons many of us live in the Pacific Northwest is the natural wonders that amaze us all. On this blog Seattle Times writers and photographers will share their explorations of the natural world from snowcaps to whitecaps. Write us at with your own sightings, questions and wonders to share.

June 15, 2011 at 9:00 AM

Elwha River finding its natural channel once more

Posted by Lynda V. Mapes

Already, the Elwha River is starting to look, well, like a river again, as the $350 million federal restoration program, including taking out Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, continues. While most attention has fixed on taking out the structures beginning Sept. 17, river restoration is already underway.

Most dramatically, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stopped generation at both dams on June 1. To re-live that historic day, read my story in the Seattle Times:

Beginning that morning, the Elwha River was bypassed around all turbines, and its full flow sent out the spillways. Here's what that looks like at Elwha Dam:

6-14-2011 - Lynda Mapes - Seattle Times - Elwha Dam 001.JPG

Photo by Kevin Yancy, taken of Elwha Dam June 14. With generation shut down since June 1, the full flow of the Elwha River is diverted around the turbines, and crashing through the spillways.

Both Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills began draining immediately, and as of Tuesday, Lake Aldwell had dropped 10 feet. After being impounded behind Elwha Dam since construction began in 1910, where Lake Aldwell has ponded ever since, the river now is finding its natural channel again.

Kevin Yancy, who manages both projects for the Bureau of Reclamation, sent in some photos Tuesday morning, shot standing on Elwha Dam, and looking up river:

stumps showing.JPG

The Elwha River is finding its natural channel, upstream of Elwha Dam. This photo was taken June 14. Lake Aldwell is disappearing; the reservoir has dropped 10 feet, and the river is finding its natural channel.

Note the stumps on the banks, left from when workers cleared the forest to log off the timber prior to closing the gates behind the dam. Construction began on Elwha dam in 1910 and power generation started in 1914.

Here are some more photos of this historic time, as the river comes back to life:

big beach.JPG

Kevin Yancy took this photo the morning of June 14. Incredible to see the river start to look like, well, a river again, just upstream for Elwha Dam. Re-vegetation of the exposed banks is going to be a big challenge, tackled with an unprecedented effort to plant the banks with native plants and seeds collected from the Elwha watershed especially for the restoration effort.

Rachel Hagaman helped bring back the first salmon ceremony at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe back in 1990 and has helped celebrate it every year. As river restoration finally gets underway, she said she feels blessed.

"It's awesome, it's good news," she said Tuesday, of the river starting to find its channel again. "Our ancestors cried a lot when the dams went in. Their voice was not heard, it was not allowed to be heard. The elders said every river had its people, the river deltas, the watersheds, that is what sustained them."

Restoration is about more than the river, she noted, it also heals people. "It's a big picture thing," she noted.

Here's another dramatic photo that gives some idea of how much concrete there will be to break up and cart away as the dams come out this fall. This is the back side of Elwha Dam, exposed as Lake Aldwell drains:

6-14-2011 Elwha Dam Progress - Status - All Gates Open KLY 010.JPG

Kevin Yancy, photo

This photo, taken June 14, shows the structure of Elwha Dam (seen from the back side), exposed as Lake Aldwell drops and the river finds its natural channel. Contractors will cut it down chunk by chunk beginning in September, and haul it away.

To learn more about the Elwha River restoration project, go to this link:

Meanwhile, Condit dam on the While Salmon River also is scheduled to come out beginning this fall. After more than a century serving PacifiCorp customers, the 125- foot tall dam will come down beginning in October, fulfilling a settlement agreement reached with multiple parties, including the Yakama Nation, in 1999. Final regulatory approval for the take down was announced by PacifiCorp Tuesday. Dam removal was determined to be cheaper for the company that fish passage that would have been required at the dam in order for the company to renew its license.

For more information on the Condit dam removal project, follow this link:

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