Washington’s Olympic Peninsula loses 2 dams and gains a wild river – plus a new beach

Sediment trapped by dams has been making its way down the Elwha River, pictured in June 2014, to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

The United States is expanding.

That was not among the goals when the Elwha River was set free. With the removal of two concrete dams that blocked the river for a century, the Elwha has released a wave of sand that has pushed the shoreline here north toward Canada.

Acres of new land stand between surfers and the chilly shore break. Eagles feed in a growing estuary at the mouth of the river. Families and their dogs stroll where not long ago they would have been submerged in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Across the water, Vancouver Island is not quite as far away as it used to be.

“You can see it a little bit better now,” said Andy Ritchie, a hydrologist with Olympic National Park here on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.


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When the largest dam-removal project in American history — and maybe world history — began here nearly five years ago, the principal beneficiaries were expected to be the salmon that would once again be able to spawn in the Elwha’s headwaters. That is proving true, with more fish and wildlife filling the river and surrounding forest.

But along the way, a beach was born, too.

“See all that?” asked Dan Callahan, a 34-year-old surfer, as he pointed to the wide ribbons of sand that have formed where the Elwha meets the strait. “Wasn’t there before. Used to be nothing but rocks. When you were surfing, you’d hit rocks. Now you hit sand.”

A century’s worth of sediment — about 21 million cubic feet — was trapped behind the two dams that blocked the river. One, Elwha Dam, was just five miles from its mouth. The other, Glines Canyon, was further up the 45-mile stream and more than 200 feet tall.

Built in the early 1900s, the two dams once were viewed as essential to the growing population of the peninsula’s northern coast. But over time, the relatively modest amount of electricity they produced — enough to power about 14,000 homes — no longer seemed to justify the cost of maintaining them. And unlike many other dams in the region, they provided no way for fish to pass, blocking one of the nation’s richest historical salmon runs.

The push to remove the dams gathered momentum in the 1980s, and in 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, allowing for their removal. Two decades passed before stimulus funds approved under President Obama helped pay the $325-million cost.


Since removal began in 2011, Ritchie said, nearly 60% of the sediment behind the dams has made its way down the river, most of it in the fall of 2013, about a year before the last pieces of concrete were hauled away. Nearly a third of that has settled at the mouth, instantly reversing a long-standing pattern of erosion on the coastline.

It may be Washington’s newest beach. Or maybe it was only misplaced. For a century. Behind the dams.

That, Ritchie said, made for “a pent-up beach.”

But nothing about the Elwha is pent-up any longer.

The flow of sediment is smaller now and much of the sediment remains in the riverbed, raising the water level. Scientists predicted that would happen. They also predicted that they would not be able to predict everything.

In November, the river rushed past its banks in a big storm, washing out a crucial road inside the park and two campgrounds that probably will not be rebuilt.

Until the road is repaired — a temporary fix is expected by this summer — reaching a new overlook that the park built at the site of the former Glines Canyon Dam requires hiking or bicycling at least six miles each way.

Thus setting the Elwha free has made it harder to reach in places, and for the National Park Service to show off one of the boldest and most expensive endeavors in its 100-year history.


“We really want to get the road open because we really want people to see this,” said Barb Maynes, a spokeswoman for the park.

But Maynes and others noted that restoring wildness — and accepting the consequences — was the idea from the beginning.

“It’s definitely a counterpoint to the trend you see in a lot of other places, including on the peninsula,” Ritchie said. “It’s nice to see that sometimes nature wins.”

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About 80% of the river’s course is in the park, but not the very last of it — not the newly formed beach. Where it meets the strait, the river also meets the small coastal reservation of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

The tribe, which has fished here for centuries, has opposed the dams since they were built. Now that its eroded coast is being replenished, prompting new interest and new visitors, the tribe has joined other groups that are planning to build permanent public access to the beach, away from the reservation, and do restoration work.


The effort is led by the Coastal Watershed Institute, a nonprofit based here that recently received about $1.5 million in grants to help buy land on the east side of the river mouth to provide access and remove large rocks put in place long ago, ostensibly to protect the shore. Now sediment delivered by the Elwha will help do that.

Anne Shaffer, the institute’s executive director and lead scientist, stood on the new beach on a recent weekend and recalled the many years of studying and modeling and imagining before the dams came down.

“We knew this was supposed to happen,” she said. “But seeing it was completely different. It’s going to be a very dynamic place for a while.”


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