December 9th, 2013

me meh

Elwha: A River Reborn

Words by Lynda V. Mapes
Photography by Steve Ringman
Mountaineers Books, 2013

The Elwha River flows out of the Olympic Mountains north to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s wild and steep, and until dammed in the early 20th century was known for its dense fish runs.

This book tells the story of the Elwha, from the time the dams were built until the beginning of their removal. The history of the dams is excellently covered, and the reporting of the efforts to remove the dams – who wanted them removed, who wanted them to stay, how they were to be removed, who did the pre-removal baseline monitoring of the ecosystems, who would do the post-removal restoration – gives I think a fair credence to all sides of the story.

There’s no question that the dam removal was necessary. They were built without even the few safeguards and fish passage required in the early 20th Century, making them basically always illegal. The Olympic National Park boundaries later included the upper dam. In both cases, removal was cheaper than updating and refitting for new licensing compliance.

In the meantime, the power they provided to Pt. Angeles and its lumber mills was replaced by power from the Bonneville Power Administration, so they were not only illegal but irrelevant. There’s a large emotional aspect to dam removal, on all sides of the issue. People like me, who feel “it’s the right thing to do” as strongly as we can point to river warming, blocked fish passage, silt-transport blockage, and so on. Or people who feel “they should stay” as strongly as they can point to power provided, dam maintenance jobs, and even novel ecologies that will be lost when the lakes are drained. I think Mapes, in fact, could have covered the anti-removal side of the story in a little more depth; it might have helped me understand it a little better.

This is a minor lack in otherwise excellent coverage. The writing verges on the poetic when describing the “Niagara of the West,” and just as easily switches to conveying scientific details. The words and pictures unite to tell us just about every aspect of the story: The politicians and activists who worked for and against removal; the people it would benefit; the scientific research being done under sometimes very trying conditions (such as dry-suit snorkeling in shallow tributaries fresh off the glacier).

The Elwha dam was completed in 1910, with no fish passage. The Glines Canyon dam was completed in 1927. The first movements to remove the dam began in 1986. The upper dam is still being removed in 2013. The project, because of obstructionism, became vastly more expensive than originally estimated, and left almost no one satisfied with the process. The restoration is vastly underfunded, partly because the purchase price of the dams became so inflated.

Despite the difficulties of removal, I think it’s a success story: for the environmental and social justice of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, for the ecologies of the river and the forest it drains, and the fish that can now swim to their spawning grounds.

The book ends with a moving depiction of the ceremony at the very start of removal (September 2011), and a ritual of the Lower Elwha Klallam to call the fish back to their home. This is an appropriate and optimistic place for the book to end, but the story continues, and will continue, for at least as many generations as it has already.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.