Klean Voices: From the Kennebec to the Elwha – Dam removal brings rivers back to life

2014 Removal of Glines Canyon Dam / Credit: National Park ServiceI’ll never forget standing on the bank of Maine’s Kennebec River on July 1, 1999. It was crowded and we stood on tip toes, straining to see the backhoe on the other side of the river. The big yellow machine scooped out buckets of dirt and then the river broke through – with a big gush of muddy water through Edwards Dam, the Kennebec was flowing freely for the first time in 162 years. Church bells rang from up on the hill, ringing in a new chapter for the river and its people. A huge cheer rose up from the crowd and a shiver ran down my spine. It was my first time witnessing a river coming back to life.

Since then, the Kennebec has rebounded and I’ve been fortunate to be present at other dam removals – Marmot Dam on the Sandy, Elwha Dam on the Elwha, Condit Dam on the White Salmon. Each event has been both inspiring and humbling – every time, I’m in awe of the river’s power, the determination of the people who worked so hard to get here, the ongoing story of hope and healing.

On Washington’s Elwha River, it has been nearly five years since the first chunks of concrete fell from the dams – the start of one of the most significant river restoration efforts in our country. When it comes to dam removal, the Elwha is still considered the “biggest” since Glines Canyon Dam, at 210 feet tall, is the tallest dam ever removed.

Now, in the words of the Seattle Times, the river is “roaring” back to life. Salmon are swimming back upriver to spawn. Elk, insects, beavers and otters have moved back into the riverside lands once drowned by the reservoirs. Sand is moving downriver to replenish the beach at the Elwha’s mouth, revitalizing the nearshore ecosystem and giving a boost to species like Dungeness crab.  Even orca whales in Puget Sound are expected to benefit from the dam removal, since salmon is a primary food source. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe is reconnecting with the river that is so vital to its culture. We are seeing how the benefits of a free-flowing river flow not just to the fish and wildlife, but to all of us.

The Elwha shows us that rivers are resilient and can be restored, if we give them a chance. As the anniversary of the Elwha restoration approaches this September, it’s a chance to celebrate this success story – and to check in on some other big river and salmon restoration efforts in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve had some big news in recent weeks.

Klamath River

PacifiCorp’s four dams, built between 1908 and 1962, cut off hundreds of miles of salmon spawning and rearing habitat in the Upper Klamath, once the third most productive salmon river on the West Coast. The dams also create toxic conditions in the reservoirs that threaten the health of fish and people.

Just last month, we celebrated agreements that will keep removal of the Klamath River’s four dams on track to begin in 2020. Dam removal will improve water quality and open access to more than 300 miles of habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead.

The dams produce a nominal amount of power, which can be replaced using renewables and efficiency measures and without contributing to climate change. A study by the California Energy Commission and the Department of the Interior found that removing the dams and compensating for the loss of power production with efficiency measures and other sources would save PacifiCorp customers up to $285 million over 30 years.

Read more: Could this be the world’s biggest dam removal?

Lower Snake River

The salmon and steelhead of the Snake River are magnificent creatures, traveling more than 900 miles from the sea to spawn in Idaho’s high mountain streams — the largest block of healthy salmon habitat remaining in the lower 48 states. They are an icon of the region, central to our lives and identity, and to the health of the Northwest’s environment and economy. And they are threatened with extinction, due in large part to the impacts of the four lower Snake River dams.

The salmon and people of the Northwest had reason to cheer earlier this month when a federal judge ruled the current salmon recovery plan for the system of hydro dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers is insufficient. The ruling sided with American Rivers and our partners, including the Nez Perce Tribe and the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, and we are hopeful it will finally put the region on a path to a real and lasting solution.

This latest ruling makes clear that the federal government must consider the option of breaching, bypassing, or removing dams in evaluating alternatives for operation of the Columbia River system.  Removing the four dams on the lower Snake and replacing their benefits with cost-effective alternatives would revitalize the river, its salmon and communities.

Read more: Fighting for the future of a Northwest icon

Klean Voice Contributor Amy Kober is the Senior Director of Communications at American Rivers, as well as the mother of two little boys. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


Photo: 2014 removal of Glines Canyon Dam / Credit: National Park Service