Image: Concrete chipped away on dam
Olympic National Park
An excavator hammers away at the concrete wall of the Glines Canyon Dam in the Elwha River Valley on Thursday. At 210 feet high, the dam is the tallest ever removed, the conservation group American Rivers says.
NBC, and news services
updated 9/18/2011 2:26:17 AM ET 2011-09-18T06:26:17

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 staff, NBC station KING 5 of Seattle and The Associated Press.

Photos: Rivers of controversy

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  1. Susquehanna River N.Y., Penn., Md.

    Controversy: Natural gas drilling Concern: Clean drinking water

    Each year, the conservation group American Rivers reveals finalists for its "Most Endangered" list based on three criteria: A major decision in the coming year that the public can help influence; the significance of the river to people and wildlife; and the magnitude of the threat, especially in light of a changing climate.

    These photos represent 10 rivers chosen for 2011 as well as a "special mention" for the Mississippi River due to recent flooding.

    The Susquehanna provides drinking water to millions and supplies most of the Chesapeake Bay's freshwater. Concerned that natural gas drilling known as "fracking" will poison water supplies, American Rivers wants "a complete moratorium on water withdrawals and hydraulic fracturing."

    U.S. agencies are studying the chemicals used in fracking. A Duke University study found methane in water supplies near sites but did not find any of the chemicals actually used to capture the natural gas. (Don Williams / American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bristol Bay rivers Alaska

    Controversy: Massive mine Concern: Livelihood of native tribes, salmon runs
    The world’s largest sockeye salmon run takes place near the site of a proposed gold and copper mine. "The Environmental Protection Agency must prohibit development of the Pebble Mine, or one of the world’s last wild treasures will be lost," American Rivers states.

    The mine project has run into opposition from fishermen and some Native American groups, but it also has some local support given the prospect of jobs and state tax revenue. (Bob Waldrop / American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Roanoke River Virginia, North Carolina

    Controversy: Uranium mining Concern: Clean drinking water, public health
    A uranium mine proposed along one of its tributaries has raised tension among the million people who use its waters. American Rivers, for one, believes that "unless the Virginia legislature upholds a ban on uranium mining, the health of the Roanoke and rivers throughout the region will be at risk."

    The company seeking to mine there says it will await scientific studies, including one by the National Academy of Sciences, before deciding on whether to pursue the project. (Southern Enviromental Law Center via American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chicago River Illinois

    Controversy: Sewage pollution Concern: Clean water, public health
    Although it supports six million people "it is one of the only rivers in the country where undisinfected sewage is dumped directly into the river every day," says American Rivers. "Unless the Illinois Pollution Control Board requires disinfection of this wastewater, Chicago residents and visitors will face increasing health threats."
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in early May 2011 ordered the state to clean up the river. (Friends of the Chicago River via American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Yuba River California

    Controversy: Hydropower dams Concern: Salmon and steelhead runs
    Home to one of California’s last spring runs for Chinook salmon, it also has two federal dams that have blocked salmon from habitat areas upriver. "Unless the Army Corps of Engineers mandates that fish passage be provided at these dams, the Northern Sierra’s salmon and steelhead will edge closer to extinction," American Rivers believes.

    The Corps has been analyzing the idea, which has support from tribes and the state of California. (Alan Banfield / American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Green River Washington

    Controversy: Mining Concern: Clean drinking water, wildlife habitat
    A copper mine has been proposed along this river, which flows through Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. "Unless the Forest Service acquires the mineral rights to block the drilling and proposed mine, and Congress forever safeguards the river with a Wild and Scenic designation, this river and its communities will be at risk from toxic pollution," American Rivers states.

    The company seeking to mine there counters that the area is already home to a rock quarry and parts of the area have been logged. (Craig Lynch / American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Hoback River Wyoming

    Controversy: Natural gas extraction Concern: Clean water, wildlife habitat
    Close to Jackson Hole and home to a trout fishery, the river could see natural gas drilling known as "fracking" near its headwaters. "Unless the Forest Service prepares a new environmental analysis and develops a true conservation alternative that fully protects the river, the Hoback will lose its unique wild character and local citizens could face serious health risks," American Rivers says.

    Many locals, as well as Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, have expressed their concerns to the U.S. Forest Service, which could issue leases to drill. (Scott Bosse / American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Black Warrior River Alabama

    Controversy: Strip mining for coal Concern: Clean drinking water, public health
    A coal mine is proposed along the river, which Birmingham and Tuscaloosa use for drinking water. "If the Army Corps of Engineers, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, and the Alabama Surface Mining Commission do not close a dangerous mining loophole and tighten clean water protections, coal mining will continue to scar the Black Warrior and its communities," American Rivers says.

    Critics say they're not against the mining industry but what they call lax rules by the state. (Nelson Brooke / American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. St. Croix River Wisconsin, Minnesota

    Controversy: Highway bridge Concern: Protection for Wild and Scenic rivers nationwide
    Although protected as a federal Wild and Scenic River, a $700 million bridge has been proposed to replace an aging one. "Congress must oppose legislation that revokes Wild and Scenic protections and creates a loophole for the expensive bridge, and the governor of Minnesota must evaluate common-sense alternatives," American Rivers says.

    The National Park Service initially backed the bridge but now opposes it, saying an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act could set a precedent across the nation. (National Park Service via American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Ozark Riverways Missouri

    Controversy: Overuse and poor planning Concern: Clean water, recreation
    More than one million people recreate here each year, but "poor management has led to motor vehicles and horses approaching and entering the river wherever they can, destroying vegetation, and causing severe erosion and pollution," American Rivers says. "Unless the National Park Service gives the Riverways the protections afforded to the country’s other national parks, the area’s clean water and rare remote experience will be lost." (Wayne Goode / American Rivers) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Mississippi River

    Controversy: Outdated flood management Concern: Public safety
    After farms replaced natural floodplains along the Mississippi in the 1800s, the U.S. built 2,200 miles of levees to act as engineered protection. The levees have allowed farms to flourish but not all are convinced that's the way to go.

    "Levees should be our last line of defense, not our first," American Rivers states. "Unless we restore our rivers and natural defenses like wetlands and floodplains, we will saddle future generations with increasingly disastrous floods." (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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