Year of the River: Dam Removals in Pacific NW

Removal of Glines Canyon Dam on Washington's Elhwa River.
(Photo: National Park Service)

Autumn has been an incredibly exciting time at American Rivers, as it marks the one-year anniversary of the world’s largest dam removal project. 

Because of efforts like the historic river restoration initiative in Washington state—which included removal of the Glines Canyon Dam and the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River beginning last September, and the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River which began last October—American Rivers dubbed 2011 “The Year of the River.” 

The removal of these dams is creating a healthier natural environment and providing miles of reopened habitat for spawning salmon and steelhead. The freed rivers are also producing significant new recreational opportunities and economic benefits for communities.

Dams are harmful because they block the flow of rivers, prevent migrating fish from swimming upstream, and create reservoirs that drown rapids and riverside habitat. (Read "10 Ways Dams Damage Rivers")

Elwha Dam, before breaching.
The Elwha Dam on Washington's Elhwa River, before breaching.
(Photo: National Park Service)

American Rivers is the leading organization working to protect and restore the rivers and streams of the United States, and last year we reached the milestone of 1,000 dams removed in the country. Of these, the Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River, which stood at 210 feet, is the tallest to ever be dismantled. 

With the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams both being removed, the Elwha River can flow freely for the first time in 100 years, restoring over 70 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat. The newly reopened waters of the Elwha will provide new stretches for paddlers to explore, more fish for anglers to pursue, and more pristine natural beauty in Olympic National Park for hikers and nature lovers to behold.

The removal of the 95-year old, 125-foot Condit Dam from the White Salmon River has also led to a number of great opportunities for outdoorsmen and women. 

Glines Canyon Dam
The Elwha Dam, post breaching. (Photo: National Park Service)

For decades, American Rivers has been working with its partners, including the Yakama Indian Nation, to remove the dam. And now that this goal has been accomplished it has restored access to 33 miles of habitat for steelhead and 14 miles of habitat for chinook salmon. This will provide fishermen with many new destinations to cast their lines. 

The White Salmon River is also nationally recognized as a premier whitewater destination, with 10 outfitters running commercial trips on the river and 40,000 boaters using the waterway each year. The dam removal will open up an additional five miles for rafters and kayakers to enjoy.

Though the one-year anniversary of the removal of the Glines Canyon, Elwha, and Condit dams is exciting, it is truly only the beginning. The coming years will bring with them more spawning salmon, a revitalized ecosystem, and an even greater number of recreational activities to enjoy in the area.

In the meantime, we’ll keep doing our part at American Rivers to pursue river protection and restoration all across America. Be sure to follow our progress and sign up for updates at


About American Rivers
Johannes Dreisbach is an intern with American Rivers, the leading organization working to protect and restore the nation’s rivers and streams. Since 1973, American Rivers has fought to help protect and restore more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and the annual release of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. It's also one of the outdoor and environmental nonprofits that Trailspace supports.

Learn more at

Filed under: People & Organizations


25 reviewer rep
3,220 forum posts
December 3, 2012 at 1:04 p.m. (EST)

John Wesley Powell was right in 1868 when he declared that people should live in the West near water supplies and not over-reach when it come to irrigation water.

Dams in this country were originally built to provide flood control, irrigation water and to a lesser extent outdoor recreation opportunities.  These concepts are not readily apparent in the video.  Cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles would not exist without the dam bulders.

The strength of the Endangered Species Act has been interpreted more strictly in recent court decisons with regard to fish habitat, specifically anadramous fisheries like salmon.

It is likely that many older dams will be removed in our lifetimes, and some major may be eliminated as well.

As a retired environmental consultant that has worked a lot with the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation, I can tell you that the dam builders are gone from those agencies.  In their place are environmental types that are more interested in protecting the resources that were over-looked during the rush to build dams.  It is unfortunate that the fish ladders and other structures built for fish passage were sometimes only marginally successful.  Society now demands a different set of ethics from these agencies.

244 reviewer rep
5,250 forum posts
December 3, 2012 at 1:28 p.m. (EST)

Originally 5 other dams were proposed in the Grand Canyon below Lake Powell's Glen Canyon Dam and above Lake Mead's Boulder Dam's.

A railroad was also proposed thru the inner canyon by a member of the Powell Expedition. 

6,158 reviewer rep
1,625 forum posts
December 3, 2012 at 4:26 p.m. (EST)

Sounds like a good situation.  A dam we no longer need goes away and the river is free.  I don't think its such a great idea on the lower Snake or Columbia rivers but it looks like a win-win in this case. 

I am a little worried about all the heavy metals and stuff on the river floor, which was previously sequestered under a layer of sludge, being released back into the river after the dams are removed.  PPine, is this a legit issue?

I'd hate to remove a dam (probably a good idea) then create other problems. 

Cool article either way.

51 reviewer rep
71 forum posts
December 3, 2012 at 7:48 p.m. (EST)

Very good post. Thank you for sharing.

25 reviewer rep
3,220 forum posts
December 4, 2012 at 11:38 a.m. (EST)


It is dangerous to generalize, but I will try to answer your excellent question.  Some river drainages have naturally occuring heavy metals and things like uranium that can contaminate the river sediments.  Those constituents are prone to accumulate behind dams, and will be released if the dam is removed.  They tend to occur in a very low density and rarely pose a health risk under natural conditions.

There are drainages with mines of varying ages, so of which were opened before environmenta laws were in place before the early 1970s.  Some of these situations would be likely to create health risks with the removal of dams.

Here in Nevada, the Carson River is an example of a river that has had historical gold and silver mining, with the use of free mercury to assimilate the desired metals.  Some of that mercury has escaped over time, and is now bound up as methyl-mercury in the bottom sediments.  There are no dams in the system, but it supports a very productive trout fishery.  Plans proposed to clean up the mercury have always been scraped because the process of disturbing the river sediments would release a lot of mercury into the system which would end up behind Lahontan Dam near Fallon which is used for irrigation on food crops.  Many of these issues are very complicated and like a Pandora's Box.


733 reviewer rep
1,381 forum posts
December 4, 2012 at 1:36 p.m. (EST)

ppine, I like the reference to JW Powell. He also said that the West, being quite arid for the most part, would never support the population density of the East.

Unfortunately, as dams come down, there are proposals for more. There is a push underway for a small hydro project on the NF of the Snoqualmie. There are many recreational users, as well as others, who are opposed.

In Canada, dam building is still going on in many areas, but is starting to meet widespread opposition. Site B on the Peace River has met with broad opposition from environmental groups and local farmers. However, the river I paddled last year, the Finlay, still has a dam proposal on the table. Its sole purpose would be to supply power to the Kemess Mine that operates nearby. 

One issue with the Columbia and its dams, are the toxic chemicals that have come down from the smelter at Trail, BC. Recently, the smelter acknowledged some responsibility in a case brought in US Federal Court, significant because it is a Canadian firm being charged in a US court. The people of Northport have had a higher percentage of certain types of cancers than elsewhere, due to being down wind from Trail.

As ppine mentioned, some toxic chemicals or metals are naturally occurring. Williston Lake the largest Lake in BC and manmade has fish that are not suitable to eat because of high concentrations of toxic chemicals. However, the chemicals are coming from the trees that remained when the valley was flooded. 

733 reviewer rep
1,381 forum posts
December 6, 2012 at 1:31 a.m. (EST)

Addendum to my last post. It is Site C on the Peace that is proposed, not Site B which has already been constructed.


Wolfman (Wolfgang Greystoke)
134 reviewer rep
456 forum posts
December 9, 2012 at 2:10 p.m. (EST)

Having Grown up in Port Angeles and been to both dams many times as a kid to fish, I know that nether of these dams had fish ladders.  The Elwa was a major salmon hatchery back in the day.  Hopefully with the dams removed, over time the salmon will return to the Elwa.  I know that they are planning on reintroducing salmon fry to the high lands of the river to help reestablish the fishery. 

I think small hydro electric projects can work if done right and provisions are taken to protect the environment and the river.  It is not always necessary to Dam the river, but it is the most common option.   Most of the time it just boils down to big business and money.  What it the cheapest way to do something.   That is exactly how these two dams got built in the first place.  And is what is happening in BC now.  And will probably be happening in Alaska soon too. 

To bad we can't learn to work with nature to provide for our needs and not always work against it.


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