River Restoration is Key to our Elwha River Dam Removal Tour

Glines Canyon Dam spillway (now decommissioned) with rainbow across the canyon

Why take an Elwha River Dam removal tour?

The unleashed Elwha River is a fascinating tour location because it is the setting for the ultimate science experiment on the Olympic Peninsula:  the removal of two ~100 year old dams and the subsequent return of salmon and marine derived nutrients to the forested mountain valley. 

The large rocky bank pictured is all that remains of the former lower Elwha Dam site

If you love to use your head but not your feet, then this tour can be organized to only include short walks or easy hikes.  An Elwha River Dam removal tour can even be organized to be dog-friendly.

Come and learn about a truly wild river (approximately 36 river miles in Olympic National Park) and controlled river behind dikes (approximately 9 river miles outside of the park). 

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A family takes photos of the towering Glines Canyon Dam Gap from the former Lake Mills

Touring Elwha River Dam removal

The Elwha River Dam Removal Tour will likely focus on multiple destinations:  former dam sites, former reservoirs, and the mouth of the Elwha River.  This tour is not focused on hiking: if you are interested in hiking then check out the Adventure Elwha River Hike.  Just as the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s allowed plant communities to start anew from ground zero, entire reservoir-sized tracts of riparian ecosystems are now above water for the first time in ~100 years.  However, unlike Mt. St. Helen's the nutrient-poor sediment soils make for tricky conditons for plants to establish themselves.

A bright red salmon is pictured underwater swimming against the current of the Elwha River

Salmon and Elwha River Dam removal

Up until its removal in 2012, the lower Elwha Dam blocked salmon migration upon construction in 1910.  Research was initiated before the start of dam removal to study marine-derived nutrients as well as myriad of other topics.  Twenty two wildlife species have been found to enjoy dining on salmon and when these animals (like black bear) leave the river, some of those nutrients pass through their bodies.  Plants require certain nutrients to grow and thus the entire ecosystem benefits from the reintroduction of salmon.

Two adult bald eagles sit perched on top of a log jam at the mouth of the Elwha River

Woody debris and Elwha River Dam removal

River erosion causes many large trees to fall into the river.  However, many of these trees (aka woody debris) had been trapped behind the former reservoirs as water slowed down and could no longer provide the force needed for debris movement.  Large woody debris is important in the formation of log jams that provide the dynamic nature of wild waterways as well as “aquarium-like” environments for young salmon.  Discover the importance of log jams on an Elwha River Dam Removal Tour.

The feet of two young girls are immersed in dark grey Elwha River sediment that looks like clay

Sediment and Elwha River Dam removal

The Olympic Mountains are largely comprised of sediments that have settled on the bottom of an ancient ocean.  These sediments were consolidated and uplifted to form the Olympic Mountains but are still highly erosive, especially when exposed to winter storms, snowmelt, flooding and other erosive events. Sediment will travel down rivers during floods, forming deltas and sandy estuaries as you will see on an Elwha River Dam Removal Tour.  Colossal amounts of sediment have been trapped behind the reservoirs (especially the upper reservoir which had more river miles behind it).  On March 6, 2014, Carolyn Wilcox documented the first large Elwha River flood event since dam removal started.

Contrasting dark grey sediment enriched Elwha River against the bright yellow fall leaves of the Vine Maple

River restoration and Elwha River Dam removal

What does river restoration have to do with dams?  River restoration is essentially the process of allowing the natural unimpeded flow of a river from the mountains to the ocean.  The various environmental impacts mentioned (especially woody debris and sediment) were not considered when the dams were originally constructed.  Thankfully, forward-thinking environmentalists in the 1980’s saw an opportunity for Elwha River Restoration when one illegal dam (Elwha Dam) that had never been licensed and one licensed dam located in a national park that had since expanded its borders (Glines Canyon Dam) was up for relicensing. 

A sunny winter day shows towering conifers, beautiful pink and grey clouds, and blue sky above the Elwha River

Politics and Elwha River Dam removal

As you will learn on an Elwha River Dam Removal Tour, the reasoning behind dual removal of the two Elwha River dams was largely based on the lack of salmon passage (illegal since Washington was a territory) and age (inefficiency) of the structures.  Retrofitting two old dams for salmon passage and updating them for maximum energy output was more expensive than removing them.  Thus in 1992, Congress enacted the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, based mostly on public pressure and economic realities that had been escalating since the 1950’s when the city of Port Angeles stopped using power generated from the Elwha Dams.

A downcut tributary of the former Lake Mills has created a depression of rushing water and woody debris

End of a Dam Era

Why did it take until 2011 for Elwha River dam removal to start when it was mandated by an act of Congress in 1992?  Please join Experience Olympic on an Elwha River Dam Removal Tour and ask this important question.  Also learn how Elwha River Restoration might offer a solution to other aging “dam” problems around the United States.

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