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Originally published March 20, 2012 at 9:41 PM | Page modified March 21, 2012 at 11:50 AM

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Rush of freedom for Elwha as dam comes down

After more than a decade, Elwha Dam is gone and Glines Canyon Dam is mostly gone, reopening a river that once was home to all five species of Pacific salmon.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ELWHA RIVER, Clallam County —

After plugging this mighty mountain river for a century, and fueling decades of controversy, Elwha Dam is history.

"It's no longer there; there is nothing left of it," Don Laford, URS Corp. construction manager on the Elwha takedown job, said Monday.

He swept his hands back and forth as he said "gone," like an umpire calling the river "safe" after a 100-year slide into home plate.

Built beginning in 1910, the Elwha Dam sat five miles from the river's mouth. Contractors in September started taking it down, as well as Glines Canyon Dam, 8 miles more upriver.

The $325 million taxpayer-funded project is intended to restore the salmon runs and ecological productivity of the Elwha and its watershed.

Once home to all five species of Pacific salmon, the river is regarded as one of the best opportunities for environmental restoration anywhere. More than 83 percent of the Elwha watershed is pristine, and permanently protected within Olympic National Park.

On March 9, at about 5 p.m., contractors removed the last of the dam from the river. On Friday, they let the river back into its natural bed, from a man-made diversion channel where it had been routed to allow workers to demolish the dam in the dry.

During dam removal, contractors moved the river back and forth between the diversion channel and its bed 10 times in all.

But by the end of this week, the Elwha should be completely restored to its natural channel, once and for all. Contractors will fill the diversion channel with rocks and soil.

The only thing left to do at Elwha Dam after that will be to take out the last bit of the retaining wall, pull out rocks and fill in the riverbed, and grade the site into a more natural form.

The job is way ahead of schedule. Once forecast to take as long as three years, Elwha Dam and Lake Aldwell, its reservoir, should be but a memory as of summer, and maybe even before April is finished, Laford said.

Brian Krohmer, project manager on the job for Barnard Construction, said crews were lucky on the weather — and they also encountered a dam quite ready to topple.

"How do I say this without insulting the people that made it?" said Krohmer, whose office in the construction trailer is decorated with the tattered American flag that flew over Elwha Dam. "Let's just say it wouldn't have passed safety standards today."

Contractors also were able to work with regulatory agencies to do some deconstruction during designated "fish windows," saving months of time.

Work in the river was shut down during fish migrations but continued in other locations.

Glines Canyon Dam — twice the height at 210 feet tall — might be gone by February, said Doug Noyes, supervisor on the Glines deconstruction project. Workers started demolishing the powerhouse there Tuesday.

A trip to the river Monday revealed a transformed landscape. The river races past where it used to choke at the dam. The former Lake Aldwell is a vast delta of sediment.

The river has been cutting through the sediment, creating badlands and hoodoos of sculpted, terraced fine material. The river, milky with sediment, rushes cold and fast through soft cliffs that calve into the water.

The cliff sides are gray and wrinkled as elephant skin where the dropping water levels have rippled and nudged the fine material into ridges. Or they are smooth, where entire hunks have fallen away at once.

On the flats, tiny prints of raccoon show animals already are exploring the new landscape. It's easy walking, soft as a sandy beach.

Along the river, a ghost forest offers a hint of the grandeur that was: gigantic cedar stumps, wider than a king-size bed, stud the sediment flats. They are all that remain of the 1,000-year-old trees that were logged before the gates of the dam were shut and the forest turned into a lake.

Up at Glines Canyon Dam, the drama of demolition is still unfolding.

On Monday, an operator worked a giant excavator fitted with a steel chisel bit, ramming the concrete face of the dam, chipping it down chunk by chunk. By now, contractors have chewed the dam down about 64 feet; they're about a third of the way finished.

Water poured over the broken face of Glines Canyon Dam, falling in a fury of white water into the canyon below, and throwing a double rainbow of spray. The operator worked his rig — a trackhoe excavator — from a barge bouncing on the surface of what's left of Lake Mills.

Big slugs of sediment stuck behind the dams have yet to start really hitting the river. But as excavation goes deeper, that material will start to move downstream.

That also will affect the final removal schedule, which remains a bit of a controlled guessing game involving weather, natural landslides upstream and the movement of the river and sediment.

The elevation of Lake Aldwell was down to about 148 feet Tuesday. The lake is expected to completely disappear at about elevation 115.

There were just two workers at each job site Monday, undoing the work that took hundreds of men to complete. Hints of the work done by their predecessors a century ago were everywhere.

Visible at Elwah Dam were some of the original concrete forms that workers built from giant timbers, broken off at the sides of the newly exposed canyon.

Just above the former dam site, sunk in mud soft as mashed potatoes, lay a wooden wheel wrapped with rusted steel from an old cart, a broken blue ceramic insulator, and tangles of rusted steel cable.

At Glines, contractors have found workers' picks and shovels on a rock shelf behind the dam.

The concrete from Elwha Dam has been broken up, with much of it used on site for fill, and the rest going to Clallam County to recycle as roadbed material.

More than 8 miles of copper wire — the good, old, four-gauge, three-ply stuff — was sold for scrap, as was all the steel from the penstock.

The powerhouse was demolished in place, including its turbines and generators.

So was the big old control panel at Elwha Dam, made of gleaming black slate. "It was too heavy to move," Krohmer said.

Workers did salvage a giant drill press, solid steel and standing some 8 feet high, for a museum in Port Angeles.

At the URS job trailer, souvenirs from Elwha Dam reposed alongside the coffee pot and boxes of Girl Scout cookies: old ceramic insulators fitted with wooden pegs, and three gleaming brass gauges from the control panel. A potted African violet sat atop the glass face of one of the gauges, the better to catch the sun.

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

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