Elwha Dam Removal – a reminder that changing water management systems is hard

The removal of two dams on the Elwha River, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, has been rightly celebrated as a major achievement – returning a river and its fish to their old channel. But there is much to learn, also, about how difficult it is to change the course of a water system when society has come to depend on the old ways.

In this case, it is the community of Port Angeles, at the Elwha’s mouth. To make the project work required construction of a big new water treatment facility. But as Lynda Mapes reports, the new water treatment facility kinda doesn’t work:

It was the most expensive single part of the $325 million Elwha dam-removal project: a $79 million water-facilities project designed and built for the National Park Service that has never worked as originally planned.

Now the park service is ready to hand the plant off to the city of Port Angeles, but the city doesn’t want it, saying it doesn’t work and will cost too much to operate.

The city says it won’t take over the facilities — which include screens, pumps, a water intake, a water-treatment plant and other components — without $16 million in repairs first. The city also wants money to cover higher than anticipated operating costs for 20 years, for a total of $41 million.

The deal here is complicated, but the bottom line is that when you make major changes in a water system, there are winners and losers, the losers generally need to be compensated, and figuring out how to get the compensation right is hard.

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