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A River Reborn

Goblin's Gate, Elwha River, Olympic National Park

In June of 2011, work will begin on the largest dam removal and river restoration project in US history on Washington’s Elwha River. The goal: to remove two obsolete but ecologically catastrophic dams and return this 40-mile-long river to something approximating its natural state. Ultimately the hope is to restore what were once huge salmon runs, destroyed when the dams were built in the early 20th century, and restore the ecological balance of the entire watershed, much of which lies within Olympic National Park. Like nowhere else in the country, Park protection should make  it possible to protect the river, and the salmon, forever.

Federal authorization for this project, which I actively supported, was passed in 1992, so it has taken nearly two decades just for the work to begin. The removal itself is expected to take 3 years, but how long the river will require to heal itself – and to flush out the vast amounts of impounded sediment – is anyone’s guess.

This project may seem small and local, but it is anything but insignificant; it represents a major re-thinking of our relationship with rivers… and quite possibly with the planet. It is certainly the best expression of our seriousness about restoring endangered salmon runs. What’s more, it will help guide future dam removals all over the world.

Simply said, this is the most exciting move in reversing environmental degradation in this part of the county in my lifetime. As a photographer, I hope to devote considerable time to documenting the river and its restoration over the next few years. Stay tuned.

For more information on this story, go to Elwha

Glines Canyon Dam, Elwha River

NOTE: This is one of the two dams slated for removal, revealing a flooded gorge that was once as strikingly beautiful as the Goblin’s Gate, just upstream.