PORT ANGELES, Wash. — In an emotional ceremony Saturday marked by a tribal blessing and the use of a large piece of earthmoving equipment with a golden bucket, crews began to set a river free.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and a couple hundred other people gathered on the Elwha River near Port Angeles for the ceremony, marking the beginning of the biggest dam removal project in the United States.
Two dams on the Elwha River inside Olympic National Park are slowly being removed, with the goal of restoring runs of six species of salmon.
The ceremony Saturday included drumming, singing, dancing and a blessing by Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe elder Ben Charles Sr.
The ceremony concluded with Salazar leading a call, echoed by whoops from the crowd, to have a large piece of earthmoving equipment with a golden bucket break up a piece of concrete just upstream of the dam and carry some pieces to the bank.
Some 1,000 dams have been taken down over the last 50 years across the United States, but none of the projects was larger than the one that began this week.
The largest of the two dams stands 210 feet tall. The $325 million project is expected to last three years and eventually restore the Olympic Peninsula river to its wild state and restore salmon runs.
Before two towering concrete dams were built nearly a century ago, the river teemed with salmon but the structures blocked the fishes' access to upstream habitat, diminished their runs and altered the ecosystem.
There has been an acceleration in dam removal in recent years in the United States.
Numbers provided by American Rivers suggest the 1999 removal of Maine's Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River set the stage for more than 430 other such projects across the country in the past decade — more than three times the 130 taken down between 1990 and 1998.
Many of the dams have come up for federal relicensing, contributing to the removal trend. Conservationists and sporting groups encourage the removals, pointing to growing evidence of environmental harm caused by dams and questioning the safety of the impoundments, especially older ones.
You can monitor the removal of the Elwha dams via livestreaming video.
This article includes reporting from msnbc.com staff, NBC station KING 5 of Seattle and The Associated Press.