By Kathryn Davis
Photo credit Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times
On a clear day, the Olympic Mountains are visible from Seattle, a looming presence that reminds us of both the proximity and vastness of the Puget Sound area. Nestled within them are the headwaters of the mighty Elwha River. Step inside the new “Elwha: a River Reborn” exhibit at the Burke Museum and that connection will be felt even more deeply. Visitors are bathed in cool blue light and hear rushing water as they follow the journey the river has taken over the last 200 years.
Last week, Soundkeeper staff and volunteers took a guided tour of the exhibit as a complement to our trip taken to the Elwha as part of the 12 Rivers in 12 Months program, a campaign meant to further our understanding of the linkages between upstream land use and the Puget Sound marine ecosystem.
Measuring 45 miles, the Elwha is short by river standards. Yet it is a mighty artery fed by eight major tributaries branching through a 321 square mile watershed. It plunges through rock canyons and crosses broad valleys before tumbling into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There, it mixes with ocean water and welcomes homecoming salmon- sockeye, chum, pinks, coho and chinook. Until very recently, these runs have successfully sustained human and ecological communities alike.
Flashback to the turn of the 20th century- a struggling Port Angeles was desperate to kick-start its economy. Dams were the solution. They offered cheap power and a secure way forward. Engineers began in earnest and by 1926 the river was quieted. For 100 years, no oceangoing fish could pass the Elwha Dam, located just 5 miles upstream from the mouth of the river. The Elwha was choked again another 8 miles upstream by the Glines Canyon Dam. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was relocated and deprived of their traditional food source.
Now, long after the dams have lost their hydropower utility, after decades of preparation and after nearly 3 years of deconstruction, both the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams are almost gone. With their complete removal, 34 million cubic yards of trapped sediment will have washed downstream and two lakes will totally disappear, drastically altering the landscape and temporarily muddying the water.
But nature is slowly recovering. The salmon are returning. New plantings are taking root. In the biggest restoration project to take place in North America, we are on the brink of a new era.
To continue to follow this incredible story, join a group from Soundkeeper on February 18th at the Neptune theater for “Short Takes on Dam(n) Science,” a night of Elwha speed-science put on by the Burke Museum.