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Colossal Dam Removal Project Frees Washington's Elwa River


Right now the Elwha River on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula is flowing freely once again. Two dams blocked that river for more than a century, but thanks to the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, the lower dam is now completely gone and the last 30 feet of the upper dam were blown up on Tuesday. This has begun the revival of what was one of the great salmon runs on the West Coast.

Ashley Ahearn from member station KUOW in Seattle went to take a closer look at a river that is coming back to life.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: If you were going to say, try to raft a river while holding a microphone, Morgan Colonel is the guy you want at the helm. He's been a river guide for 10 years.

MORGAN COLONEL: All right, gang. Who wants to get the wettest?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'll do it. I'm in, I'm in.

AHEARN: Colonel runs Olympic Raft and Kayak. He bought the company three years ago when he heard the Elwha dams were coming out. And he's had a front row seat to watch the recovery process ever since.

COLONEL: To get started here, we will be paddling on what appears to be more of a creek than a river.

AHEARN: Colonel says the rivers change a lot. New channels come and go as the Elwha twists back and forth across her bed, trying to find the fastest way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

COLONEL: Kind of just figuring it out a little bit as we go. A brand-new river to pioneer.

AHEARN: Salmon are starting to come back. This summer state fisheries biologists counted more than 1,500 king salmon above the lower dam site. And the otters, eagles and bears are catching on. We head into a rougher patch of river as Colonel tells a story about the demise of one sockeye salmon at the hands of a mama otter and her pups. They cornered the fish in a small eddy, but it escaped.

COLONEL: That otter was on it. I mean, from the word go, that mom headed downstream but then about five minutes later, she comes back up holding the sockeye by the mouth and that sockeye was about as big as her.

AHEARN: Millions of tons of sediment have now been released from above the dams, creating sandy beaches where there used to be rocky shoreline. Rob Elofson joined Colonel to run the river today. He's a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, which has been pushing for dam removal for decades. This is the first time he's rafted the river since the dams came down.

As the group paddles along, Elofson points out that the river is already looking more salmon-friendly.

ROB ELOFSON: This small sediment; this sand and gravel wasn't here. It was just large rocks and - yeah. It's completely different. It's the way it's supposed to be now.

AHEARN: We round a bend and the water grows louder as it rushes into a tight curve, flashing with rolling whitecaps. Colonel explains, this stretch of river is known as Ferngully.

COLONEL: It's going to be our best rapid of the day. It can be class III in higher water; probably class II-plus right now.

AHEARN: We come out of Ferngully and the water slows, clear beneath us. We're on the lookout for intrepid salmon who have made it into this newly free-flowing stretch of river to spawn. Nothing yet. We float quietly.

KATI SCHMIDT: There's one. Yep.

AHEARN: Kati Schmidt spots a sockeye salmon. She's with the National Parks Conservation Association. The gleaming flash of red darts beneath us, headed upstream and into the Ferngully rapids.

SCHMIDT: Yay - go, fish, go.

AHEARN: Now that the dams are gone, that sockeye could be the mother, the grandmother and someday the great-grandmother of countless generations of salmon to come, all free to colonize the Elwha once again.

AHEARN: We made it. (Laughter) I'm Ashley Ahearn, on the Elwha River.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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