How Unleashing Two Dams Extended Washington’s Coast

Elizabeth Borneman


What do you get when a dam is removed? A whole lot of water going wherever it wants to go.

What do you get when two dams are removed? Well, you get Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Olympic Peninsula

The iconic Olympic Peninsula in Washington State is the quintessential Pacific Northwest locale; it has rivers, forests, mountains, coastline, and even a rainforest.

The peninsula is also home to a vibrant amount of flora and fauna, each dependent on the many water sources that flow through the region.

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Removing dams from the Elwha River in Washington

Two concrete dams were removed that were holding back the Elwha River for over a century. A hundred years of water and silt had built up, and the release of the dams caused a wave of water and sand to pour forth.

A concrete dam with water running through it and vegetation in the lower bottom right of the picture.
The remove of Elwha Dam began in September of 2011 and was completed by March 2012. Water drawn down of the damn in June 2011. Photo: Leslie Dierauf, USGS, public domain.

The removal of the dams caused an expansion of the coastline of Washington and created a massive estuary. Vancouver Island in Canada got a bit closer as the river’s mouth pushed sediment into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

An aerial photo showing sediment flowing from the mouth of a river with vegetation and stream braiding.
Sediment at the mouth of the Elwha River as a result of dam removal. Photo: Jeffrey Duda, USGS, public domain.

Dam removal effects on wildlife at Elwha River

Salmon have already begun to spawn in the upper regions of the Elwha River, as they did before the dams were built.

Eagles and other wildlife have also been spotted, and residents of the area are taking advantage of this new stretch of land to explore.

Local surfers are in support of the new beach that was created, as they no longer hit rocks when they catch a wave.

Map of the Elwha River in Washington and the location of the two former dams.  Map: USGS
Map of the Elwha River in Washington and the location of the two former dams. Map: USGS

The dams’ removal didn’t come problem-free. The higher water levels in the river resulting from built up sediment caused floodwaters to rise higher than they usually do, causing two campgrounds and a road to be washed out.

While the National Park Service is unsure if the campgrounds will be rebuilt, they say the road is an important way for people to see the rebirth of this important Washington waterway.

Nature has reclaimed this corner of Washington, and it will be a dynamic environment for many to enjoy for years to come.

More about the dam removal from Elwha River

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.