Last week, the long-anticipated removal of two dams on Washington’s Elwha River took a giant step closer to reality when the state Department of Ecology gave the project the go-ahead.

The dams’ removal will help floundering salmon populations. Prior to their construction in the early 1900s, all five Pacific salmon species had spawned prolifically in the Elwha. Within 20 years of dam removal, says Amy Kober, Northwest communications director for American Rivers, hundreds of thousands of salmon are expected to once again travel up the river. And those salmon runs should help the endangered Puget Sound orcas that feed on the fish. “Restoring this river,” says Kober, “is going to have reverberations… through the entire Puget Sound ecosystem.”

Breaching plans have been in the works for years, as we reported in 2001. Responding to growing concerns about vanishing salmon, Congress passed the Elwha River Restoration Act in 1992. It authorized the Interior Department to acquire the dams and remove them. Funding, however, lagged behind. It wasn’t until 2000 that the federal government finally purchased the Lower Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam, which sits inside Olympic National Park.

The next stage of work will begin in the coming months, once the Army Corps of Engineers issues the final permit. Before the dams come down, mitigation projects must be completed to protect downstream water treatment plants and fish hatcheries from sediment released during dam removal. Federal funding has already been appropriated for those projects.

Actual dam deconstruction should begin in 2009. The upper dam, at 210 feet, will be the highest ever breached in the nation.