Restoring a River and a People: The Elwha River Project

by Michael W. Childers with photographs by Leisl Carr Childers

Standing on the abandoned roadbed, I look down at the large earthworks imagining the dam and hydroelectric plant that once stood here. There are signs of the dam if you know where to look. A small eye-hook embedded into the ground, a handful of holes where the dam was once anchored into the bedrock, and of course the roadbed on which I, along with rest of a tour group* led by NPS Historian Chris Johnson and Olympic National Park’s chief cultural resource manager Dave Conca, are now standing. In truth, the area appears like any reclamation site. Carefully graded slopes are thinly covered with native grasses, and further up stream, what was once the reservoir’s high water mark is now planted with those same grasses in efforts to stabilize the slopes and beat back invasive species. But what is most important is the Elhwa River pouring through the narrow rock gap on its way to the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

The connection between mountains and the sea is particularly pronounced on the Olympic Peninsula where the Olympic Range rises to 8,000 feet above sea level before plummeting down to the peninsula’s rocky, weather-beaten beaches. Snowmelt cascades down from the mountains into the Pacific, the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound in a system of streams and rivers, cutting through dense rainforests. The peninsula abounds with elk, bobcat, otter, and thousands of bird species. On the peninsula’s northern end, a quirk of geography blocks much of the rainfall seen on the rest peninsula. Sheltered by the Olympics, the area is much drier, which has made the region much a more attractive place for human habitation for millennia.

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I join the rest of the tour already hiking down to the former dam site, where we listen to Conca briefly tell the dam’s story. Built in 1913, the Elwha Dam system, consisting of an upper and lower dam, provided the needed electricity to the upper Olympic Peninsula’s thriving timber industry. But in doing so, it slammed the river shut to thousands of Chinook and Coho salmon from making their annual run upstream and inundated the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s creation site, severing both the tribe’s physical and spiritual connection to its ancestral home, causing them to become, in the words of the tribe’s lawyer, refugees in their own homeland.

Unable to make it past the dam (the original fish ladders having lasted only a year before collapsing) salmon failed to reproduce in sufficient numbers. As the number of fish declined, the once thriving beach at the mouth of the Elwha slowly eroded away, leaving behind only a rocky shore. With no fish and no beach, the birds, crabs, seals, and sea lions all moved on.

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And so it remained for a century. The two dams destroyed one way of life while providing the basis for another. But one generation’s triumph became another’s foil, and dams, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest, became the targets of increasing criticism over their environmental and cultural implications.

By the late 1980s, electricity from outside the region surpassed that produced by the increasingly outdated Elwha plant. Faced with the reality of both the dams’ growing obsolescence, along with growing calls to remove all dams throughout the northwest, in 1995 the owners of both the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, along with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service agreed to take down both. As is often the case, the final removal of the Elwha Dam took nearly another two decades. But in the spring of 2012 the Elwha Dam and hydroelectric plant were gone.**

After wandering around the former dam site, we loaded back onto the tour bus and headed down to the month of the river where the tribe’s river restoration director Robert Elofson meets us in parking lot of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Center. Herding us back into our bus, we follow Elofson in his pickup down to the beach where he excitedly marches us to a newly formed estuary. With a wide grin, he explained how this winter’s torrential rains, some of the heaviest in recorded history, had plowed open the beach, allowing seawater to flood back in, recreating the long-vanished estuary.

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Cautioning us not to stand too closed to the bank, Elofson then led us off onto wide gravel beach. Whole trees, along with cedar stumps the size of my car and driftwood lie strewn across the expansive beach. Walking along the water’s edge, I soon am pointed to a school of porpoises swimming in the straight. A seal pops its head above the shallow waves before disappearing again below. Thousands of sea birds soar above us in the crisp afternoon air, their cries creating a cacophony of sound. Reaching the far end of the beach, about a mile hike, I notice several bald eagles resting on a stump in the middle of the Elwha as it enters the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

Remarkably, none of this, not the birds, the clams, the porpoises, not even the beach itself was here just a short two years ago. The removal of both dams released nearly 14 millions tons of sediment down the river, forming this beach in a matter of months. Today, the estuary measures some seventy acres, and life has returned to the Elwha. Pausing where the river fans out and enters the straight, Elofson begins to talk of the future. The tribe is waiting another few years before they start harvesting the salmon in order to allow the number of Chinook and Coho to stabilize. They are already in talks with Whole Foods he grins, hoping to capitalize on the Elwha’s story to sell salmon in the Seattle area, a possibility that was inconceivable two decades ago.

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In his Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, historian Richard White writes, “We have managed the river to deliver power that has improved lives; the river has also irrigated land and served as a highway for barges. But judged against the larger hopes, our efforts have been failures, and integral to them was a failed relation with nature.” Published in 1995, the book could have as easily been about the Elwha as the Columbia. Walking back across the beach I am struck by two thoughts. One is how the removal of the Elwha Dam adds a chapter to White’s work. We have remade the river by removing a dam, and in doing so, have reconnected a people to their home. But the second is how modern a story this is. The Elwha will continue to work, but this time producing salmon and clams for the Seattle market, an economic as well as cultural link between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the millions who call the booming metropolitan area home. It is this reconnection between river and people, people and fish, fish and birds, birds and mountains, that is so captivating as I turn to leave the new beach. This is better model for the modern West.

* The American Society for Environmental History Conference organized the Elwha Dam Removal Tour as part of their conference activities on April 3, 2016. Our thanks to Chris Johnson from the National Park Service Pacific West Region’s Seattle office  for all the work he did in putting the tour together.

** For more on the restoration of the Elwha River, see the National Park Service’s Elwha River Restoration site and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s Elwha River Restoration site.

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