What Happens When You Demolish Two 100-Year-Old Dams

Can the largest river restoration project in history serve as a template for other waterways across the country?

“A river is never silent…Reservoirs stilled my song.” Narrated from the point of view of Washington’s Elwha River, a new documentary about the largest dam removal project in U.S. history starts off on a somber tone before building toward the best possible catharsis: massive charges of dynamite demolishing a pair of meddlesome dams.

The 1,400-square-mile Olympic National Park is the fifth most-visited national park in the country, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, and the 45-mile-long Elwha is its heart. It is fed by runoff from Mount Olympus and, in turn, feeds thousands of acres of forestland and flows into the Pacific Ocean. But for more than 100 years the river’s flow was restricted by two dams initially installed, like so many others in the country, as generators of cheap power. Eventually, the dams were discovered to be a strain on the local environment and nearby communities outgrew the need for them. But removing the dams would not be an easy task. It took more than two decades and countless efforts by local community members and environmental groups to tear the dams down and return the river to its natural state.

Return of the River, currently screening around the Pacific Northwest, tells the story of the fight to restore the Elwha to its former glory, how the project might serve as an example for successful dam removal projects across the country—even ones mired in political discord—and how opening up the river created a myriad of new recreation opportunities.

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