Elwha: A River Reborn and a Vision of What’s Possible

“And, always, there is the river,” begins author Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter for the Seattle Times newspaper, in the 2013 publication of Elwha: A River Reborn. This natural history book, compiled in coffee table format, synthesizes 16 years of interviews, observations, research, and photographs about Elwha, a 45-mile long watershed (70 miles including the tributaries) in the northwest corner of Washington State. Mapes offers a contextual map of the 321 square-mile Elwha Watershed, shaped like a contracted California with stomach cramps, early on page eight.

It took more than $350 million (in 2011 dollars), nearly a half century of negotiations and an act of Congress to undam both Elwha Dam (1910-1912), five miles from the mouth, and the Glines Canyon Dam (1927) erected further upstream from Washington’s Port Angeles. (Elwha.org/departments/river-restoration).

This long (1968 to 2011) process offers insight for those working to remove multiple dams, with tribal collaboration, in the Klamath and Eel River watersheds closer to home. Elwha’s undamming, restoration, and start of a return offers a vision of what is possible when fish, and people with Traditional Ecological Knowledge and their long view ways, are prioritized alongside science.

Elwha serves as an example of early and frequent collaborations — experiences of communities undergoing a process together from the start, rather than at the end as a necessary formality. The book describes how communities benefit when agreements are made resulting in trust, information, and rivers flowing over rocks and through steep gorges together.

Also with the Seattle Times, Steve Ringman provides color and black and white photographic evidence of the river’s return to unobstructed flow north, and the people documenting the historic twin dam removal — with Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal cooperation. Three percent of the Elwha runs through one thousand acres of tribal lands.
Of course, Ringman’s 125 photographs (approximately one for each page of text), include salmon being tagged and hatchery coho breaking the water’s surface. Photos of old growth stumps that were once submerged and now revealed are perhaps the most startling with tall layers of sediment now evident. The history of their truncated lives are revealed in sunlight, feeling the wind as the restoration of the river takes place. The stumps exist in the 700 acres being revegetated as part of the mudflat restoration.

Mapes explains Elwha’s headwaters are 6,000 feet above sea-level, in the Olympic National Park; Elwha ends at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, draining into the Salish Sea before leading to the Pacific Ocean. The Strait forms part of the border between Canada and the United States and is a mix of salt and freshwater, churning without regard to borders. Most of Elwha (87%) runs through the length of Washington’s Olympic National Park, a one million acre, coastal rainforest similar to Oregon, Humboldt and Del Norte’s temperate forests and ecosystems.

After the dam removals, a ten-year moratorium on fishing for all people, including the River People, was put in place while fish populations recovered. Much of Elwha’s riverine life died when 24 million cubic yards of sediment (20 cubic yards equals one dumpster) was released from behind the dams; since the sediment has redistributed more evenly since the initial release, impacting water quality, hope remains that ten remaining (of eleven native) species of fish populations, five of which are salmon, will recover over time.
As of July 2021, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and other fishing people were supposed to have returned to fishing the Elwha. In March 2021, the moratorium was extended one year to July 2022.

This book, although not providing a hard science look at the Elwha, offers this perspective by the Tribe’s Jamie Valdez: “An injustice was done a hundred years ago. And now here is a chance to heal not only the fish, but the whole watershed and the people” (Mapes, p. 160).
This is a book that captivates and helps us visualize what may yet come to pass in this kind of ecosystem—locally on the Klamath and the Eel rivers, both slated for dam removals after arduous processes. Free flow. Free fish. Power naturally cascading downstream. A future where people and ecosystems are restored to their ways from a time long before books were ever written.

The Dirtbag Diaries podcast produced an episode: Endangered Species—The Elwha River Recovery (soundcloud.com/thedirtbagdiaries/endangered-spaces-the-elwha-river-recovery)

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, known as ʔéʔɬx̣ʷaʔ nəxʷsƛ̕áy̕əm̕ – The Strong People, with interesting facts about the Elwha River: (www.elwha.org)

Return of the River (www.elwhafilm.com) a movie co-directed by John Gussman, Jessica Plumb, and produced by Sarah Hart.

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The National Park Service provides an overview about the restoration of the Elwha River (www.nps.gov/olym/learn/nature/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm)