How Unleashing Two Dams Extended Washington’s Coast



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.

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.

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. 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.

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

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.


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.


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