“What once seemed radical is now mainstream,” said
American Rivers President Bob Irvin, whose group has advocated dam removal for environmental reasons. “All of these are experiments in how nature can restore itself, and the Elwha is the biggest example of that.”
The pace of removal has quickened, with 241 dams demolished between 2006 and 2010, more than a 40 percent increase over the previous five years. Many of them are in the East and Midwest, having powered everything, including textile mills and paper operations at the turn of the 20th century.
A drumbeat of litigation by tribes and environmental groups has pushed federal officials to dismantle some dams that otherwise would have remained in place. Although this has led to political fights in regions where dams matter the most, such as the Pacific Northwest, it has also forged historic compromises.
“The Elwha River restoration marks a new era of river restoration in which broad community support provides the bedrock for work to sustain our rivers and the communities that rely on them,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
Although estimates vary on the economic value of restoring a river’s natural flow, it creates construction jobs in the short term and eventually restores depleted commercial fisheries. It also draws tourists — anglers, rafters and kayakers. Federal officials estimate the $325 million, 21
2-year Elwha river restoration project will generate at least 760 jobs during its duration and 446 annual jobs in recreation and tourism once it’s finished.
This push to demolish large dams on major rivers in the Pacific Northwest, which got 70 percent of its electricity supply from hydropower as of 2009, has been criticized by influential policymakers, such as House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). Hastings sought to block funding for dam demolition as well as the nomination of President Obama’s choice for assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks, Rebecca Wodder, who advocated for dam removal as the former president of American Rivers.
“I am very skeptical of the removal of dams, period,” Hastings said in an interview, noting that dams not only provide electricity but also irrigation, recreation and transportation.
Dams once played an outsize role in the nation’s energy supply, providing 40 percent of U.S. electricity in 1940. Now they account for 7 to 10 percent, with only 3 percent of the nation’s dams boasting generating capacity.