So, how DOES one knock down a tall dam in a narrow notch of a canyon without all the water going splooshing down the valley, wrecking sandbars full of willows and riverside bars full of tourists and causing other mayhem, all so salmon can have a part of their historic spawning grounds back? Yes, very carefully, of course. The first think I looked at after a tip to this news (thank you reader Roger Pettibone), was the graphical animation of the teardown process, stage by stage, atop the LA Times story by Kim Murphy on the start of long-awaited demolition of two dams on Washington State's Elwha River. It is not the first but it is the largest dam removal project, it says here, in US history.
The river meanders (Correx - it's more like a straight flume. See comments) through the Olympic Peninsula's gorges and heavy timber. Until about 100 years ago it ran thick with spawning salmon. The dams pretty well put a stop to that. In return, lumber mills got electricity. That's an environmental un-twofer, now being undone.
The LATimes did the story fairly aggressively and with commendable breadth of detail on all the politicians on hand to try to get a share of credit, the technical details, and the history of things with maps and the interactive graphic. One astounding fact - it will take 30 years for the old river bed to get back to normal. One reason: accumulated silt that, if all piled on a football field, would rise taller than the Empire State Building ... eleven times. That's a lot of muck to wash away by what this says is a glacier-fed river. It might not even have any glaciers left in its headwaters (just guessing here) when it gets done.
The more local Seattle Times has a reporter who has been covering this aggressively:
- Lynda V. Mapes (sept.15) Elwha dams' historic removal begins ; A prelude to the next story. It's not clear exactly when removal started - maybe this story concerns some preparatory smashing before the serious big smashing. Nice bit on a fellow who hiked in to see the first concrete fly, and found himself alone on a beach watching the key moment.
- Lynda V. Mapes (sept.17) With an excavator and a prayer, Elwha Dam removal begins/It was a century in the waiting, but on Saturday history was made here as, with speeches, song, prayer - and an excavator bucked painted gold - a National Park Service contractor took the first bite out of Elwha Dam ; That's a lot of hed and dek, but it scans nicely. The story gets a load of good quote from the audience, to mix with history and color. This package has an overtly celebratory tone. It probably speaks for the bulk of the community up there. One wonders - would it be better to get some grouching in from somebody, some wish that the dams and their lakes could have remained? Ambitious Graphic Package.
- Ah ha - Letter to Editor: Dams created a unique environment for animals ; A reader tells the Times that two wrongs don't make a right. The next letter calls the removal "enviro-religious voodoo." Grouching, indeed.
- Lynda V. Mapes (sept.19) Big kings return to reign in Elwha ; The reporter on the beat watches as an 80-year-old national park volunteer releases four grown chinook salmon into the river upstream of the taller and more upstream of the crumbling barriers Glines Canyon Dam. Ten in all were released, carrying radio tags, so biologists can keep tabs on how well they navigate farther upstream. She should write a book.
- High Country News - Kim Todd: Rebuilding a river as Washington's Elwha dams come down ; The best piece I've found - sensitive to history, and determined to explain how hard this job is. (The link will probably take you to a pay and subscriber barrier. I'm trying to spring it into the clear.) Did anybody else mention that the silt pouring from the drained siltponds where the reservoirs were will kill most of the fish downstream? That it may go, first, from few salmon to almost none at all? And why it's worth the risk - the original drainage was among the most fecund salmon habitats anywhere. Todd did her homework. She calls the project "a perfect test case for restoration science, a chance to see and document exactly what happens when a big dam comes down." She owns the story - explaining things not through the quotes and statements of others, but using such things as decor on the narrative and lessons she carefully constructs. We learn about the budget problems, the bull trout that now live in the lake, the fear an invasion of weeds will spoil the restoration sequence. Climate change and the prospect of warmer, slower water means the old watershed cannot be expected to come back. Good piece.
- AP - Ted Warren: Ceremony marks start of Elwha Dam removal project ;
- NYTimes / Green blog - Sean Patrick Farrell: Farewell, Dams. Hello, Salmon? ;
- Peninsula Daily - Rob Olikainen: Older Elwha Dam starts becoming rubble ; With embedded video of demolition's start.
- Charlie Petit