The Glines Canyon Dam, just west of Seattle, is the largest dam removal project in the world so far; it’s the poster child for the growing trend in North America to blast away ancient, hulking, concrete structures and revive riparian environments. Elsewhere, many countries are still in the midst of a hydroelectric power building boom. The world’s largest dam, Three Gorges in Hubei, China, became fully operational only two years ago, and Itaipu Dam on the border between Brazil and Paraguay was most recently expanded in 2007. Many major dams are in the works for the Mekong River in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Perhaps what’s good news for the North American fish is also emblematic of the decline and fall of Western industrialization.
Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park was built in 1927 under the auspices of the Olympic Power Company. The dam created Lake Mills and blocked the mass migration of salmon to the upper reaches of the river and its tributaries, leading to a tremendous decline in the fish population of the region. Back then it was hard to foresee just how many salmon fillets it was going to take to keep the restaurant industry afloat in the coming century. Could the final blast, which was ignited on August 26, 2014, be a harbinger of a salmon glut to come?
For decades, all was well and good (for people, not fish) at Glines Canyon Dam until the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992 called for the deconstruction of the dam and a rehabilitation of the aquatic habitat. I’m guessing the issue was as much economic as it was environmental; after all, nobody blows up a perfectly good dam that’s busy providing power to area homes. However, you can scour the literature all you want and not come up with any good statistics on the changing power needs of the Elwha River watershed between the 1920s and now.
Bottom line: If the dam wasn’t necessary, it needed to disappear—call it environmental stewardship if you want. The really cool thing is that the undamming was documented extensively on video (go here, here, or here), like a how-to guide for a civilized Monkey Wrench Gang. Environmentalists, rejoice!
Despite the 1992 proclamation, the effort to dismantle Glines Canyon Dam didn’t get underway until 2011. It took three years to do it, but now the process is complete. The Glines Canyon Dam and the Elwha Dam (further upstream and even older than the Glines Dam, having been completed in 1914) are now history and the spawning salmon are returning to their long-lost homes. Steelhead, coho, and Chinook salmon swim and spawn happily and unimpeded; populations are expected to surge. The reservoir is gone and indigenous foliage is spreading throughout the drained basin. Large deposits of sandy sediment grace the Elwha’s estuary at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, providing a haven for clams, smelt, and Dungeness crab.
The restoration owes much to the tireless lobbying of the region’s Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, who for years decried the dams’ environmental costs and safety risks. Other wildlife, terrestrial, avian, and aquatic, should soon follow. Some 46,000 seedlings have been planted in the drained reservoirs, and the Penstock Tunnel, which used to carry water from the reservoir to the powerhouse, has a new bat gate: Keeping nature in, people out.
One of the hold-ups in eliminating the dams was determining the short-term damage to the ecosystem from the increased turbidity of the water. Decades of pent-up sediment would now be washing down the river to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The health effects of contaminants in the soil, from years of upstream industrial practices, needed to be considered, on both the human and wildlife populations. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
Ultimately, the dismantling of the Glines Canyon Dam is an important test case for what promises to be a trend. As the United States drifts ever more certainly into a post-industrial age, many of its dams—hulking and crumbling after a century or more—may suffer a similar fate. According to the nonprofit American Rivers, more than 850 out of the 75,000 dams listed in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers National Inventory of Dams have been removed since 1994.
Public opinion against dams began to shift with the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam along the Colorado River in the 1960s, which bolstered the nascent environmental movement. Once seen as an Ayn Rand-ian triumph of humans′ dominion over nature, dams are now seen as a short-term solution with very high long-term stakes for surrounding ecosystems. It’s a fascinating story that encapsulates every facet of environmentalism in one issue. We all need to know more. I’ll leave you with a few book recommendations:
- Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future, by Stephen Grace.
- Watershed: The Undamming of America, by Elizabeth Grossman.
- River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers, Daniel McCool.
- Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Marc Reisner.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.