Characterizing the physical and biological characteristics of the lower Elwha River, its estuary, and adjacent nearshore habitats prior to dam removal is essential to monitor changes to these areas during and following the historic dam-removal project set to begin in September 2011. Based on the size of the two hydroelectric projects and the amount of sediment that will be released, the Elwha River in Washington State will be home to the largest river restoration through dam removal attempted in the United States. Built in 1912 and 1927, respectively, the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams have altered key physical and biological characteristics of the Elwha River. Once abundant salmon populations, consisting of all five species of Pacific salmon, are restricted to the lower 7.8 river kilometers downstream of Elwha Dam and are currently in low numbers. Dam removal will reopen access to more than 140 km of mainstem, flood plain, and tributary habitat, most of which is protected within Olympic National Park. The high capture rate of river-borne sediments by the two reservoirs has changed the geomorphology of the riverbed downstream of the dams. Mobilization and downstream transport of these accumulated reservoir sediments during and following dam removal will significantly change downstream river reaches, the estuary complex, and the nearshore environment. To introduce the more detailed studies that follow in this report, we summarize many of the key aspects of the Elwha River ecosystem including a regional and historical context for this unprecedented project.