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September 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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Elwha: The largest dam removal in history hits one-year mark

On Sept. 17, 2011, the region celebrated and the world watched as the largest dam removal ever in history got underway. Actually started a couple days earlier with the first whacks taken at Glines Canyon Dam on Sept. 15, dam removal on the Elwha has been proceeding ever since with dramatic results.

This spectacular photo taken by NOAA biologist John McMillan to me says it all. The Elwha watershed is coming back to life.

dipper with egg small_john mcmillan photo.JPG

A dipper eats a coho egg on the Little River, a tributary of the Elwha. Salmon in all phases of their lives are expected to feed all kinds of animals and even the soil in the Elwha watershed.

Photo by John McMillan, biologist with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. To enjoy more of his spectacular work see the book he and his father Bill McMillan have just published: May the Rivers Never Sleep, just out from Amato Books.

Getting that photo was a special moment, McMillan said. He shot the photo on the Little River, a tributary of the Elwha last November, where coho salmon he had helped relocate from the lower river were spawning. "I had to sneak up on it," he said of the dipper. "He or she ate five or six coho eggs and most of them very quickly. But this one he or she was just sort of savoring, holding it like a glass of fine wine in the hand. In that moment he or she had the egg in its mouth for about three seconds."

In addition to being an amazing photo, it was also a special moment that demonstrated the broadening reach of the river's restoration, beyond fish, to nurturing more species. "It is ecology as it should be," McMillan said. "It is how things used to be, and hopefully, will be in the future."

As a scientist working on the restoration, it was also nice to see concrete results. "It makes you feel a little more at peace in the world, you see a little bit of change taking place. You spend so much time doing science, it is nice to see results. One of those little reward moments in life."

Fish have already been tracked using the habitat returned to them since Elwha Dam was taken out last March. Some fish were relocated to tributaries of the river from its lower reaches, but others found their way into the river on their own.


One of the first chinook spotted in the Elwha after the lower dam was removed in March. The fish was seen inside the boundaries of Olympic National Park last month -- where chinook had not been since the building of Elwha Dam beginning in 1910.

Photo: John McMillan

To mark the one year anniversary of the start of dam removal, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe is hosting poetry readings and a traditional dance performance at its downtown Port Angeles heritage center, and a guided tour of the Elwha River by tribal elder and restoration director Robert Elofson. All the events are free and the public is invited by the tribe to share the first anniversary of dam removal with some of the people who fought for it the longest.

To participate in the river tour, meet Elofson at tribal headquarters at 2851 Lower Elwha Road in Port Angeles at 9 a.m. Monday. You'll need your car to follow Elofson to various spots along the river where he will talk about the restoration project.

The poetry reading and other events will kick off at 5:30 p.m. at the Elwha Klallam Heritage and Training Center at 401 East First Street, in Port Angeles, with readings starting at 6, followed by a performance by the Elwha dance group.

The park service also will be continuing its tours of the former Lake Aldwell throughout September, due to overwhelming demand. The walks are free and begin at the old boat launch at the end of Lake Aldwell Road, which turns off Highway 101 just west of the Elwha River bridge. Wear sturdy walking boots and be ready for lots of sun and wind. The Elwha Discovery Walks last about one hour. For more information, call the Elwha Ranger Station at 360-452-9191.

The walks are offered on Saturdays and Sundays beginning at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The walks are a fascinating look at the shifting sediments on the lake bed, the river re-establishing itself in its channel, and century-old stumps exposed by the draining of Lake Aldwell, the former reservoir behind Elwha Dam.

Meanwhile dam removal is on schedule to be finished in half the time originally forecast, with Glines Canyon Dam gone perhaps as soon as March, That would have the dams out in 18 months, instead of three years as originally projected.

lake mills aerial.jpg

This spectacular aerial taken by photographer Tom Roorda on September 2 shows a vastly diminished Lake Mills puddled behind what is left of Glines Canyon Dam.

Blasting at Glines is back underway after a long pause to minimize disturbance to migrating fish.

The biggest loads of sediment to the river so far have been seen after getting Elwha Dam out in March. But the river has cleared significantly since then. The big dump is yet to come, as work continues on Glines. We've only seen a tiny percentage of what's coming because most of the 24 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dams was always stuck behind the upper dam.


Dam removal on the Elwha may be complete as soon as next March with the final removal of Glines Canyon Dam -- way ahead of initial projections.

Photo courtesy National Park Service

To learn more about the $325 million Elwha restoration project, read our special report in the Seattle Times.

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