The National Park Service has signed a $27 million contract with a Bozeman, Mont., company to take out the two dams on the Elwha River in the largest dam-removal project in U.S. history.

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After decades of talking about it, the feds finally signed a contract Thursday to take down two dams on the Elwha River in the largest such project ever in North America.

The goal is to restore the Elwha River ecosystem, especially its fabled salmon fisheries, choked off by two dams for nearly a century. The takedown of the dams will take about three years to complete. The first concrete will come out of the dams beginning just about a year from now, in September 2011.

“Oh mercy, I am so certainly happy to hear that,” said Adeline Smith, 92, an elder of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, when told over the phone of the news.

Recovery of fish runs is expected to be gradual, building over about 30 years.

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“It probably won’t be in my time; it takes years for it to come back,” Smith said. “But I will be happy to see our grandchildren and their children’s children see the fish come up, and the wildlife, and everything around the river will come back, which makes me happy.”

The National Park Service signed the $27 million contract with Barnard Construction of Bozeman. The total project cost is $351 million, including a new hatchery and flood- protection levees on the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s reservation, and a new water system for the city of Port Angeles for drinking water and industrial supply — projects already completed or under way.

“We have turned the corner and are heading down the homestretch,” said Karen Gustin, superintendent of Olympic National Park. “I feel very humbled to be here right now; a lot of people have done a lot of work who are no longer here. You … don’t have many opportunities in your career to be involved in a project like this.”

The 108-foot-high Elwha Dam five miles from the river’s mouth was completed in 1913. The 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam 13 miles upriver was completed in 1927. The two dams were built to generate electricity to spur economic development of the Olympic Peninsula, especially the pulp-mill industry just then taking hold in Port Angeles.

For many years the dams powered the pulp mill that still runs at the foot of the Ediz Hook and today produces the soft paper used for telephone books. Both dams are still producing power, but today the mill buys its power from the Bonneville Power Administration.

It was the Elwha Klallam Tribe that first pushed for dam removal, back in the 1980s, when the license for the upper dam was up for renewal by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The lower dam was never licensed and was built despite laws even then against blocking fish passage without providing a fish ladder.

The developer of the dam, Thomas Aldwell, struck a deal with state fisheries officials to substitute a hatchery for fish passage. The hatchery sputtered along for a few years before failing for good. But the dam remained, without fish passage.

Over time, the entire Elwha ecosystem has been affected, from the beaches, starved for sediment, to the river, devoid of salmon or steelhead above the lowest dam, to the uplands, deprived of the nutrients salmon bring back to the land with their return to spawning gravel.

Removal of the dams will be gradual, in order to contend with some 18 million cubic yards of sediment backed up behind the dams. Contractors will begin cutting a pilot channel in a delta of sediment above the upper dam next week, in a first step toward removing the structures.

Before the dams, chinook salmon returning to the Elwha reached enormous size, even as much as 100 pounds. Descendants of those fish persist today, as a distinct run of fall chinook, unique in Puget Sound. The Elwha was once home to all five species of salmon and steelhead.

With three-quarters of the Elwha watershed within the intact habitat of Olympic National Park, it’s expected that salmon and steelhead will vigorously recolonize some 70 miles of the river and its many side channels and tributaries.

Smith remembers sitting by the river as a child with her relatives on summer evenings, watching the fish go up. “We always sat by the river, we had a couple of chairs, and after everybody got through with supper if it was a nice day they would go down to the river and watch the fish go by. You couldn’t cross a stream without stepping on a fish, they were that thick.”

Her nephew used to pick the fish up by the tails, and to a child, the big fish were a wonder. “We used to hear them flipping around when they were jumping. They were taller than I was. It was nothing to get a 55-pounder,” Smith said.

“Oh, it just makes my mouth water to think of all the good fish we used to have.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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