The largest dam demolition in the nation’s
history will begin Saturday when an excavator claws away
at the concrete supports for Washington’s 108-foot Elwha
River Dam, a ceremonial act of destruction that will
signal not only the structure’s demise but the latest
step in a broad shift in the way Americans are managing
Faced with aging infrastructure
and declining fish stocks, communities are tearing down
dams across the country in key waterways that can
generate more economic benefits when they’re unfettered
than when they’re controlled.
“What once seemed radical is now
mainstream,” said American Rivers President Bob Irvin,
whose group has advocated dam removal for environmental
reasons. “All of these are experiments in how nature can
restore itself, and the Elwha is the biggest example of
The pace of removal has quickened, with
241 dams demolished between 2006 and 2010, a more than
40 percent increase over the previous five years. Many
of them are in the East and Midwest, having powered
everything, including colonial textile mills and paper
operations at the turn of the 20th century.
A drumbeat of litigation by tribes and
environmental groups has pushed federal officials to
dismantle some dams that otherwise would have remained
in place. Although this has led to political fights in
regions where dams matter the most, such as the Pacific
Northwest, it has also forged historic compromises.
“The Elwha River restoration marks a new
era of river restoration in which broad community
support provides the bedrock for work to sustain our
rivers and the communities that rely on them,” Interior
in a statement.
Although estimates vary on the economic
value of restoring a river’s natural flow, it creates
construction jobs in the short term and eventually
restores depleted commercial fisheries. It also draws
tourists such as anglers, rafters and kayakers. Federal
officials estimate the $325 million, 2-1/2 year Elwha
river restoration project will generate at least 760
jobs during its duration and 446 annual jobs in
recreation and tourism once it’s finished.
This push to demolish large dams on major
rivers in the Pacific Northwest, which got 70 percent of
its electricity supply from hydropower as of 2009, has
been criticized by influential policymakers, such as
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings,
R-Wash. Hastings sought to block funding for dam
demolition as well as the nomination of PresidentBarack
Obama’s choice for assistant secretary of
fish, wildlife and parks, Rebecca Wodder, who advocated
for dam removal as the former president of American
“I am very skeptical of the removal of
dams, period,” Hastings said in an interview, noting
that dams not only provide electricity but also
irrigation, recreation and transportation.
Dams once played an outsized role in the
nation’s energy supply, providing 40 percent of U.S.
electricity in 1940. Now they account for 7 percent to
10 percent, with only 3 percent of the nation’s dams
boasting generating capacity.
The two dams on the Elwha River generate
a modest amount of electricity: 19 megawatts, compared
with the 500 megawatts of an average coal-fired power
Linda Church Ciocci, president of the
National Hydropower Association, said hydropower’s low
carbon emissions makes it an ideal energy source. The
industry hopes to increase its capacity 66 percent in 15
to 20 years by upgrading dams and converting non-powered
dams, as well as through technological innovations such
as wave and tidal energy.
“We have a tremendous opportunity in the
United States to increase renewable generation through
hydropower,” Ciocci said.
States and local governments across the
country, meanwhile, are grappling with how to deal with
dams that have outlived their usefulness. Most of
country’s 80,000 dams were built more than 50 years ago.
Martin Doyle, a Duke University professor
of river science and policy, estimates 85 percent of
dams in the United States will be near the end of their
operational lives by 2020.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
licenses hydropower dams for 50 years, with possible
extensions of 35 to 50 years.
The decision to dismantle them is made on
a case-by-case basis, driven by factors including local
regulations, litigation and the availability of funding.
Pennsylvania has dismantled 186 dams, more than any
other state, largely because the Fish and Boat
Commission overseeing dams there has used existing laws
to pressure owners to dismantle them and provided state
funds to help finance the projects.
Tim Purinton, a director at the
Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game’s division of
ecological restoration, said his state has conducted an
assessment of its roughly 3,000 dams to determine which
could be good candidates for removal.
“It’s one of the biggest bangs for the
buck in terms of the amount of restoration you can get,
for one intervention,” Purinton said, adding that his
division has 30 potential dam projects but lacks the
money to dismantle them.
In some cases the removals have delivered
human benefits as well as ecological ones. Purinton’s
division and its partners spent $650,000 to remove the
Briggsville Dam in Clarksburg, Mass., this year,
$100,000 less than what it would have cost to bring it
up to code. In past years, the dam had raised the
river’s level, which caused it to jump its banks during
storms. Last month the town avoided flooding from
Hurricane Irene because the dam was gone, he said.
Maryland officials are working with
environmental groups and federal officials to dismantle
at least three of the four dams on the Patapsco River,
which flows into the Baltimore harbor. For years
officials had tried, with little success, to use fish
ladders to help shad, herring and eel, which need to
swim upstream to spawn, traverse the aging structures.
Last year, they used $3.3 million in federal funds to
take down two of the dams and are now hoping to
dismantle the Bloede Dam downstream, which generated
power for a only few years in the early 1900s.
Other dam removal projects are more
controversial. Hastings has sought to block federal
funding for the impact on navigation stemming from
dismantling the 125 foot-high Condit Dam owned by
PacifiCorp on southwest Washington’s White Salmon River,
which is scheduled to begin in late October, on the
grounds that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay anything
for it. Several groups are still locked in litigation
over whether to remove four dams on the lower Snake
River, a move that could help recover imperiled salmon
and steelhead but would eliminate 1,100 megawatts of
The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe fought the
Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam upstream
for years. It’s taking part in a nearly week-long
celebration around their demolition. Robert Elofson, the
tribe’s river restoration director, said his clan has
such a close connection to the fish that once flourished
there that “we were called the salmon people, to give
them a status equal to the people.”
Almost entirely contained within
Washington’s Olympic National Park, the Elwha is
untouched aside from the concrete structures that have
reduced its wild salmon spawning population from 400,000
to about 3,000. Three of the salmon species native to
the river, chinook, steelhead and bull trout, are listed
as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Amy Grondin, who operates a commercial
fishing boat with her husband an hour away in Port
Townsend, said removing the dams will ultimately produce
more salmon for her and others to catch. “I’m an hour
away. But an hour away is nothing, especially for
salmon,” she said.
Brian Winter, the Elwha project manager,
estimates it will take 25 to 30 years for the river to
return to its natural state. Once it does, he predicted
that the hundreds of thousands of salmon traversing the
river will provide sustenance for trees growing along
the river’s banks, orcas swimming in Puget Sound and
“We literally are restoring an ecosystem
from mountain to sea,” he said.