Elwha River Restoration

Elwha River Restoration is a National Park Service project that includes the largest dam removal in history, restoration of the Elwha River watershed, its native anadromous fish, and the natural downstream transport of sediment and woody debris.

The removal of Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River began in mid-September 2011. Today, both dams are gone, the Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell reservoirs have drained, Elwha River flows freely from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, sediment once trapped behind the dams is rebuilding critical river and nearshore habitats, vegetation is being restored in the once barren landscapes of the drained reservoirs, and anadromous salmon and trout are naturally migrating past the former dam sites for the first time in over 100 years.

Start your exploration of this landmark project here, by watching our growing series of short web videos, reading the weekly Elwha River Restoration Blog, checking project webcams and much more.

 

Restoration of the Elwha River Webisode Series
View a series of webisodes that chronicle the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. The webisodes begin with the history of the dams and continue through the dam deconstruction and ecosystem restoration process.

 

Elwha Closure Map
The former Elwha Dam, Lake Aldwell, and Lake Mills sites, as well as Olympic Hot Springs Road are open to the public. The parking area at the former Glines Canyon Dam site remains closed while additional work and improvements are completed.

The Elwha River and its tributaries within Olympic National Park are closed to all fishing. Boating is prohibited from Upper Lake Mills Trail to Altair Campground.

 

History of the Elwha
Discovery the history of the Elwha Valley from the glacial retreat to present day.

 
Barge on Lake Mills from above

Photo Gallery of Elwha River Restoration
View a photo gallery of the Elwha River Restoration project, including the dam removal process.

 
 

Elwha in the News
The Elwha River Restoration project has caught the attention of the local, national and international media. The print and broadcast media covering the story of the Elwha River Restoration have each brought a unique voice to the dynamic and complex story of this historic project. View a collection of publications and videos from media outlets covering the Elwha River Restoration here.

 
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This webpage was made possible in part by a grant from Washington's National Park Fund.
 
Elwha River Collage

Photos of dam, eagle, Elwha River by John Gussman. Photos of salmon, elk, tree planting NPS photos.

 
As the glaciers in the Northwest receded 10,000 years ago, they unveiled 13 rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. Ecosystems evolved during this process and all manner of species began to inhabit the rivers and valleys. Salmon, being a tenacious and opportunistic species, soon found their way into these newborn habitats. The Elwha River proved to be the most ideal for salmon and soon all five salmon species made it their home. For millennia the salmon thrived in the river and the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe which resided on Elwhas river banks came to depended on them. In the late 1800s a growing nation looked to the Northwest to supply the required lumber to build new cities. This brought rapid change to the Olympic Peninsula and especially to the Elwha River and the people of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.
 
Dam overlook at night

Elwha River Overlook

John Gussman

Freeing a River
Two dams were constructed on the Elwha River in the early '20s and on August 26, 2014 the last piece of concrete was removed from the river and the Elwha River was set free. This event constituted the largest dam removal and restoration project U.S. history. You can now visit the new Elwha River Overlook and watch the river rush through the gorge where its journey had been blocked for 100 years. View former Lake Mills and see part of the old dam that was once an impenetrable obstacle for salmon and other indigenous species. See our Elwha River history page for more information and our Elwha River Brochure to learn where you can go to explore the history and witness the rebirth of the river.

 
Smolt salmon

Salmon smolt

The Value of a River
In 1880 Federal regulations required fish ladders on hydroelectric dams for spawning salmon, but these laws were overlooked on the Elwha River dams. Conservation was a new idea with few champions and the resulting omissions of fish ladders blocked the salmon from reaching 70% of their Elwha River spawning grounds. The Elwha Valley lost the replenishment of ocean nutrients once provided by the salmon runs and the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe lost a food source and a centuries old symbol of cultural pride. As the role of the dams, once pivotal in the development of the Olympic Peninsula, became aged and obsolete, discussions about a better future for the Elwha River and its inhabitants began. You can learn more about anadromous fish on our Olympic National Park fisheries page.

 
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Elk in the Elwha River valley.

NPS Photo/C. Bubar

It's not just about the Salmon
Research in Olympic National Park has shown that over 130 species benefit from having salmon in riparian ecosystems. Whether salmon are consumed directly by eagles or bears or if their bodies returns to the soil to nourish plants grazed on by insects or elk, salmon nurture ecosystems. Although salmon are certainly a primary beneficiary of the dam removal project on the Elwha River, habitat improvement will benefit species from the headwaters of the river deep in the Olympic mountains to its journeys end at the San Juan De Fuca Strait. To learn more about Olympic National Parks ecosystems look at our page on natural features and ecosystems. To see which new habitat areas on the Elwha River may provide spawning habitat see the Potential Range Map for the Seven Elwha Salmonids.

 
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Immature Bald Eagle

John Gussman

Where the Mountains feed the Sea.
The nearshore area where the Elwha River flows into the Strait of Juan De Fuca is changing in leaps and bounds. More than 34 million cubic yards of sediment that accumulated behind the dams is making its way to the nearshore. The sediment is creating new fish habitat and the long shore drift is helping disperse the sediment along the strait. Sandy beaches are reappearing and nearshore habitat that once provided rich shellfish beds is once again gaining ground. Shellfish in turn support marine mammals and sightings of seals, sea lions and octopus at the nearshore, once a rarity, are becoming more common. Eulechon, a small bait fish that had not spawned at the nearshore due to loss of sediment has returned after a 70 year absence. More on the nearshore can be found on the USGS Elwha Nearshore page.

 
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Revegetation in the Elwha River valley.

NPS Photo/J. Burger

Giving Mother Nature a Hand
A major restoration project is underway to reseed the old lake beds and encourage spawning habitat. Trees are a major component in moderating river temperatures and when down, provide cover for vulnerable young salmon. Park botanists and dedicated volunteers have begun the labor intensive task of reestablishing riparian areas by planting the more than 400,000 native plants that will be used to restore the exposed land. The Elwha Corridor Restoration Plan calls for revegetation of the old lake beds to minimize invasive exotic species, stabilization of established ecosystems and the establishment of native forests. For more information visit our Elwha revegetation page.

 
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The Lowering of Lake Mills

John Gussman photo

A River Gone Wild
The Elwha River is transitioning from its dam-bound era to a river wild and free. The river was severely altered by the installation of the 100 year dams and biologists say it could take a generation or more to heal. It is rare to get to watch a river reborn and scientists will be watching, measuring, monitoring and evaluating the changes in an effort to understand the river evolution processes. Aging infrastructure is a problem unfolding across the US and the Elwha River dam removal and restoration projects will exhibit the possibilities for restoring ecosystems and illustrate the benefits of freeing a river. Stay informed on the rejuvenation of the Elwha River and its inhabitants on our Elwha Fish Restoration page and the Elwha River blog.

 
 

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