In Our View: Restoring Two Rivers

Northwesterners show we're just as good at taking down the dams



Never in state history has so much unmitigated destruction caused so much heartfelt elation among Washingtonians. The wreckage is unfolding at two sites: on the White Salmon River about 65 miles east of Vancouver, and on the Elwha River on the north side of Olympic Peninsula.Removing the Condit Dam at the former and two dams at the latter will let migratory fish venture where they haven’t gone for a century, a combined 100 miles upstream on these two rivers to answer the amazing mandates of their instincts. That mankind would spend a combined $388 million to make all of this happen demonstrates the strength of our environmental commitment. From an engineering standpoint, this work is almost as impressive as the wisdom that led to the three dams’ construction.

Last week it was reported that additional blasting has been requested at the Condit Dam project. As Eric Florip explained in a Columbian story, the new explosions (as many as nine, each using about 25 pounds of dynamite) will hardly match what happened last October. A single shot of 700 pounds of dynamite breached the dam. As of last week, the dam was about half-gone. With a dam height of 125 feet, this is the largest dam-removal project in U.S. history. But it won’t hold that ranking for long.

Up on the Elwha, the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam was breached in March. Next summer, demolition will be completed upstream at the massive Glines Canyon Dam — a 210-foot-tall behemoth — nudging the Condit project out of the No. 1 spot.

On Thursday in The New York Times, Northwest-based writer Timothy Egan described the Elwha project as “the Berlin Wall of environmental restoration.” At a project cost of $351 million, compared with $37 million at the Condit project, Egan’s description is as accurate as it is eloquent.

More from Egan (a Columbian intern more than three decades ago) about the Elwha Ecosystem Restoration project: “The investment here will not only return a river to its natural state, but lays the foundation for a wild salmon fishery like no other in the 48 states. Imagine having a place, two hours and change from the 3 million people of the Seattle metro area, that looks like Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula — and has the fish to bring in visitors to expand what is already a thriving tourist industry.”

And more from Florip about what’s happening on the White Salmon: “(The river) has already started to show signs of new life. Biologists spotted migrating steelhead well above Condit Dam earlier this week, a welcome sign of recovery for those closely watching the evolving landscape. That means fish are swimming upstream through the opening at the bottom of Condit Dam, even as crews take it apart.”

Here are a few more comparisons of the projects: Condit Dam was completed in 1913, Elwha Dam in 1912 and Glines Canyon Dam in 1927. From the mouth of each river, Condit is 3.3 miles, Elwha is 5 miles and Glines Canyon is 12 miles. On the White Salmon River, about 33 miles of upstream spawning habitat will be restored, with about 70 miles of similar restoration accomplished on the Elwha River.

Often it has been said that — next to building airplanes and growing apples — erecting dams is what we do best here in Washington state. But these two river-restoration projects show that we’re pretty good at taking dams down, too. Make no mistake, economic factors were prime movers in the complicated deliberations that led to both projects, but the unprecedented gains by nature are the source of a greater pride among Northwesterners.