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Originally published September 17, 2011 at 6:51 PM | Page modified September 17, 2011 at 6:51 PM

With an excavator and a prayer, Elwha Dam removal begins

It was a century in the waiting, but on Saturday history was made here as, with speeches, song, prayer — and an excavator bucket spray painted gold — a National Park Service contractor took the first chunks out of Elwha Dam.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ELWHA DAM, Clallam County — It was a century in the waiting, but on Saturday history was made here as, with speeches, song, prayer — and an excavator bucket spray-painted gold — a National Park Service contractor took the first chunks out of Elwha Dam.

To commemorate the official start of dam removal on the Elwha — the largest dam removal in U.S. history — dignitaries, conservation activists, and members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe celebrated in a ceremony held on a bluff above the Elwha River, just upstream of the dam. Demolition of Glines Canyon dam, just upriver, began last week.

Both U.S. Senators, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, and the Secretary of the Interior, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the governor, and chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe shared a stage set just above the river, running past serene and green — and nearly free at last.

Setting the tone was Lower Klallam tribal elder Ben Charles Sr., who offered a prayer to open the ceremonies. In a dignified, deeply felt address, he said the spirits of many generations of tribal members were watching, that he could see them, and that he knew they were glad for the work being done.

"There is a lot of positive power here," Charles said. "Prayers are answered today that all down through the years have gone up from my aunties, my uncles, my ancestors. They lived on these waters and prayed when they saw the damages done. When all the things started to happen, many tears were shed. But I can see them because they are standing here now, in a great cloud of witness, and they are all so happy, some of them are crying."

Local high school students sang a song composed especially for the day, and some of the Klallam children included in the tribe's songs that opened the ceremony were little taller than the drums their parents carried.

Throughout the audience were heads that had grown gray with waiting for Elwha River restoration and a dam removal project that took nearly 20 years to realize.

Art created for the day transformed what had been a grim industrial site. Colorful banners fluttered from an archway fitted over the walkway across the top of the dam. A salmon, a bear chowing down on a salmon feast, the words "welcome home," and more created a magical entryway to the gathering grounds. In a pool just below the dam, the adult Elwha fall chinook swam, as if gathering for the celebration of the work undertaken to restore their home.

Dozens of members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe of all ages turned out for the ceremony wearing black and red button blanket regalia and cedar hats, some decorated with white ermine, eagle feathers, and abalone.

"They are going to go up there," said Adeline Smith, 93, one of the oldest Klallam Tribal members, as from her wheel chair she watched the fish. She, and her niece, the late Bea Charles, fought for removal of the dams for decades. "I just wish she could have lived to see it. But I think she is happy," Smith said.

Noreen Frink of Seattle, whose late grandfather Thomas Aldwell built the dam, turned out too, for what she said was an emotional and historic day. "I have already talked to him this morning," she said, when asked if she had thought of her grandfather on this day. "And I told him, 'You should be happy that they lasted as long as they did,'" she said of the dams, "'and now the Indians should have their way.'"

Congress passed the authorization for the takedown of the two dams back in 1992, but it took 14 appropriation bills to come up with the money to pay for the $325 million project, noted Dicks, who called the project one of the biggest things he has done in his career.

"You think of 321 square miles of watershed. Seventy miles of (river) habitat. That is phenomenal," Dicks said. "It is great to see the salmon in there, against the dam, bumping their heads, and after 100 years, we are going to make it possible."

Construction of Elwha Dam began in 1910, to provide hydroelectric power for the Olympic Peninsula. The Glines Canyon dam was built upriver, completed in 1927. Neither dam had fish passage, against even the laws of that time, but state fisheries officials finessed a deal with Aldwell to substitute a hatchery for a ladder. It failed by 1922, and passage was never provided.

As a result four runs of fish in the Elwha, including the biggest chinook salmon ever known in Puget Sound, are at risk of extinction.

Taking out the dams will take two to three years, as contractors step the structures down in notches. Removal has to be done slowly because of the 24 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dams.

Dam removal is expected to bring back not only all five runs of Pacific salmon that used to throng the river, but to also revive the entire watershed, most of it within Olympic National Park. Elwha dam removal is regarded as one of the best chances for environmental restoration anywhere the country, with so much of the watershed in pristine condition and permanently protected.

Dam removal comes after many years of argument and frustration. Dicks remembered in an interview that in his first public meeting on dam removal in Port Angeles, "There were 115 people there, and I asked how many people supported dam removal and five people stood up. Authorizing it is one thing, but then how do you make it happen?"

With many more years of work, as it turned out, and hard-won collaboration. For that reason perhaps, Saturday's celebration had a a sense of quiet, happy satisfaction, as many who had worked for so long to see this day happen gathered together to watch it come true.

"I'm sitting here today with people who have probably never checked the same box I have in an election," said Joe Mentor, a Seattle attorney who helped broker the three-way community agreement in Port Angeles that made dam removal possible. "But we are here, because of this."

U.S. Senator Patty Murray said she remembered when she took office in 1992 one of the first things she heard about was the Elwha dam project.

"I thought, seemed like a good idea, I figured they would be out by 1995."

She laughed along with the crowd, and offered thanks for the persistence that finally made dam removal happen. "I am proud to be part of something that is changing the course of history but also changing the people of the Northwest."

There was much talk of the history of the moment, and several speakers signaled a sea change in thinking about the environment, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor.

"Dam removal is not the best option everywhere, but it was the best option here," Connor said. "We are assessing the cost and benefits of facilities today and this is not only a historic moment here, but it is going to lead to historic moments elsewhere across the country.

"I hope that the bureau is known as much for our expertise in river restoration as we are in building dams."

And then came what everyone had been waiting for: the yell from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, joined by many in the crowd, to the operator of an excavator down below on the river banks, to begin demolition.

The operator started up the excavator with a roar, raising and swinging the gold-painted bucket around and bringing it down with a smash on the cofferdam helping to hold Elwha Dam in place for a century. Then, as Lower Elwha Klallam tribal members beat their drums and started to sing, the operator began taking the dam out.

"I'm just so happy," said Jamie Valadez of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. "An injustice was done 100 years ago. And now here is a chance to heal not only the fish, but the whole watershed, and the people."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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