Demolition has begun at Glines Canyon Dam, and removal of Elwha Dam will start soon.
With a percussive bang, history was made in Port Angeles on Thursday morning, as the first chunks of Glines Canyon Dam were demolished and the largest dam-removal project ever in North America got under way.
Work began in the center of the 210-foot-tall structure, with a hydraulic hammer — weighing 5,000 pounds and rising 10 feet tall — smashing into the concrete. Chunks of the dam calved into the water with a mighty splash, and a plume of dust rose from the rubble and racket.
Out with a bang: That’s the prescription, and it’s working. Within an hour, a hole the size of a Volkswagen Bug had been smashed in the top of the dam, holding back this mountain river since 1927.
Elwha Dam, blocking the river just downstream since 1910, will take its first whacks Saturday after a ceremony planned at midday to commemorate the beginning of the $325 million dam-removal project, expected to take about three years.
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It’s been nearly 20 years since Congress passed the Elwha River Restoration Act, calling for removal of both dams to restore the Elwha watershed and its legendary fisheries, which included all five runs of Pacific salmon.
More than 80 percent of the watershed is protected within Olympic National Park, and taking out the dams is regarded as one of the best chances for watershed-scale environmental restoration anywhere.
The ceremony Saturday will include dignitaries from Washington, D.C., as well as from the region, from Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, the heads of the National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation, and the chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. After speeches, an excavator will take the first chunks out of the Elwha Dam. From there, work on both dams will proceed simultaneously.
At least one fan of dam removal couldn’t wait for Saturday: Joe Karr, of Port Ludlow, said he got up early, drove an hour and a half and hiked more than a mile to see the first chunks of concrete fly.
Karr, retired after years of working as an accountant in Seattle, was surprised to find himself alone on the beach as history was made just after 9 a.m., a bit later than the contractor had predicted.
“I was born here, I grew up hiking here, and the Elwha means a lot to me,” said Karr, who added that while he is not a fisherman, taking out the dams means “now this place is just a little bit more perfect.”
The dams finally starting to come down keeps a promise, and is a refreshing step in a positive direction for the environment, Karr said. “It’s hopeful. To get past the politics and see something actually work.”
Demolition will be a start-and-stop affair, with pauses in the action for everything from fish migrating in the river, to giving the river time to redistribute some 24 million cubic yards of sediment impounded behind the dams.
For starters at Glines, contractors will use the hammer, a bucket and huge shears to smash, pull and cut the dam down about 30 feet to the water line, working back and forth across the face from a barge, a process that will take about two weeks. The material they remove will build a work platform on the lake bottom, enabling them to ditch the barge and continue demolition, gradually taking the dam down in notches.
Meanwhile, downtown Port Angeles is celebration central, with concerts, readings, art displays, guided hikes in the watershed and a two-day science symposium all devoted to dam removal.
By Monday, the festivities will be over, but work will continue, gradually rebuilding and healing a landscape dammed and blocked off to salmon runs for more than 100 years.
“The spirits are crying, just overwhelmed with joy, and this rain is purifying what is going on right now,” said Frances Charles, the tribal chairwoman, reached by phone as a soft rain fell on the work under way at the dam.
Around town, many who have worked for this moment the longest find themselves a bit stunned now that it’s really happening.
“We are still numb; we can hardly believe it,” Charles said. “There are so many that helped, and we are walking with so many that came before us. We are successful. Honored. And humbled.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org