The demolition phase of the removal of two dams on the Elwha River is at the one-year mark, and the progress over the past year–after decades of planning–is stunning. For those of you outside of the Pacific Northwest that haven’t been following this project, it is a big deal. Two dams–built in the early 1900s–are being removed from the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. Both dams were built without any type of fish passage, and the Elwha River’s watershed is mostly within the boundaries of Olympic National Park. Legend has it that ~100 pound king salmon used to frequent the river, which also historically had runs of all five species of salmon (pink, Chinook, Coho, sockeye and chum) as well as other anadromous fish such as steelhead, cutthroat and bull trout. The installation of the dams in the early 1900s provided an important source of electricity for the growing Port Angeles timber industry–but at the expense of these fisheries. Two dams are coming down, the Elwha Dam (already removed, the lower of the two dams) and the upper Glines Canyon Dam (about 70% removed as of this weekend).

Elwha Watershed, image from NPS/Erdman Video Systems.

The scale of the restoration project is massive. To get a sense of the demolition activities, take some time to review the web cam imagery that has been collected over the past year, and do it using the Silverlight viewer if you can. You can go back in time and pick a start date and then hit “play” to watch things evolve in a fairly rapid fashion (the individual frames represent 30 minute intervals, and the cams only operate in daylight, so things move quickly). Some of the most dramatic sequences include the following:

Elwha Dam: Mid-September 2011 to February 2012, where you can watch the lower dam disappear. The contractors did this by diverting the river to one side of the dam, working on the other, and then diverting it back to the other side of the dam and stepping things down. A good example of this process can be seen in late December 2011 through the first few days of January 2012 (the actual channel switch happens on December 29th).

Glines Canyon Dam: The contractor started by notching down the dam using a barge-mounted excavator. A particularly dramatic example of this work can be seen if you go back to March 13, 2012 using the Silverlight viewer and then press play to watch the next couple of weeks of work. Later, the contractor switched to blasting the remaining pieces of the dam. One such event occurred on the 1-year anniversary of the project this past Saturday (September 15, 2012).

If you are interested in following the progress of the project or learning more, I’d recommend spending some time on the NPS’s blog. Another less-frequently updated but nonetheless interesting page is the USGS’s site detailing its work studying the response of the beaches fed by the Elwha River to the increased sediment load that is coming down the river. As Glines Canyon dam comes down, I’m expecting a lot more “action” in terms of this sediment monitoring project.

This is something that I’ve been following for a while, for a few reasons. First, as a fisherman and geologist, I’m excited to see how the watershed and ecosystems respond to the removal of these two dams. I also spend a fair amount of time surfing out in this area, and am curious to see how the millions of cubic yards of sediments influence the beaches out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (most of which will come down the river over the next year or so as the Glines Canyon dam removal is completed).

As a lawyer and someone that helps with permitting of projects in and around aquatic environments, I appreciate the massive undertaking this project is from a legal and environmental compliance perspective. The first Environmental Impact Statement for this project was issued in the mid-199os. The supplemental EIS for this project was released nearly a decade later. The politics surrounding the project included competing views over the necessity of dam removal, and complex government-to-government relations because of tribal treaty rights and the desire by the local tribe to have the dams removed as a way to restore their access to the fisheries taken away when the dams were built. Even though this is a restoration project, the details involved from a NEPA compliance and planning standpoint are just as massive as any other large infrastructure project.

Finally, the policy wonk in me can’t help but compare the cost of this project to the cost of other environmental restoration projects. The cost of this dam removal is in the neighborhood of $300 million. For that price, the public is getting the biggest salmon restoration project the Pacific Northwest has ever seen–the dam removal process will open up a huge, largely pristine, watershed in Olympic National Park for salmon habitat. And, it seems to me that the location of the Elwha River probably helps even more: out-migrating salmon have much less distance to travel to the open ocean, and can avoid the urban impacts of the greater Puget Sound in doing so.

As a lawyer that works on complex sediment cleanup sites that can cost two or three times more than this restoration will cost, and as a citizen that understands that most of this money ultimately comes from public funds, I can’t help but think about how some of the money being spent on large sediment sites could perhaps be better utilized if turned directly towards habitat restoration.  Granted, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison in one sense (because we’re talking about remediation of contamination on one hand and pure habitat restoration on the other), and wouldn’t really work within existing statutory frameworks. But in another sense this really isn’t an apples-to-oranges comparison–because ultimately we as a society have to make decisions on how to allocate increasingly scarce resources when it comes to restoration projects, either in terms of remediating contaminated sites or in terms of removing outdated infrastructure to restore habitat.

In closing, I can say I’m looking forward to taking my 2-year-old son out to the Olympic Peninsula in a few years to enjoy the fruits of this project . . . and as someone that still is a bit of a kid himself, I’ll keep my eye on those cams–especially on days when blasting is scheduled.