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Scientists uncover lasting impact of monumental dam removal project: 'You can change the marine ecosystem'

"Now it's such a joy to visit the area because it's so lush, it's so green."

"Now it's such a joy to visit the area because it's so lush, it's so green."

Photo Credit: iStock

Scientists studying a dam removal project in Washington state have discovered positive impacts on coastal ecosystems a decade downstream from the project's beginning.

According to a report in Hakai Magazine, the 2013 removal of the Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River released "centuries worth" of sediment that has accumulated behind the dam onto ecosystems further down the river.

Initially, flora and fauna at the mouth of the river struggled; most noticeably, the kelp population declined by 95% because of a combination of the sediment flow and other environmental factors.

However, researchers have discovered over time that the ecosystems have recovered to a pre-removal standard and now show stronger potential. Additionally, the sediment created new sand bars and beaches that are now home to increasing populations of native flora and fauna.

Like other dam removals around the country, such as the project on the Klamath River, the Elwha is one of a few examples to remind stakeholders of the value of ecosystem restoration.

The Elwha dam removal is just one example of an initiative that could have a positive impact on the ecosystems that support people worldwide. Dam removal projects can open up significant areas to repopulation by native species of fish and wildlife that struggle to make homes in rivers segmented by dams and suffocated by dead zones.

As shown in reporting on the Elwha, they can also increase the capacity of kelp forests as nutrients and supportive sediment flows out to sea. Kelp forests are key in sustaining aquatic life, providing habitat for thousands of species, and increasing the biodiversity and strength of their resident ecosystems. Researchers have also found that their carbon sequestration potential makes them a vital instrument in combating rising global temperatures.

As reported in Flux Magazine, Indigenous peoples groups in the United States have also advocated for river restoration. Restoring the natural flow of the river and the consequent salmon habitat is crucial not only for native peoples' stewardship of the river but also for the continued maintenance of their way of life.

According to Flux's reporting on the dam removal project on the Klamath River, "Climate change will continue to threaten fish populations after the dams are removed, but the Yurok believe an undammed river is a step in the right direction."

Chhaya Werner, an assistant professor at Southern Oregon University commenting on the Elwha removal project for Oregon Public Broadcasting, said, "Now it's such a joy to visit the area because it's so lush, it's so green." She went on to speak at length about the resurgence of native flora and fauna along the river and riparian zones.

Ultimately, a USGS researcher on the Elwha quoted in High Country News put it best, saying, "The key takeaway is if you remove a dam, you can change the marine ecosystem."

As time flows on, the Elwha is beginning to thrive as a standout example of the potential of dam removal projects.

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