A Trip to the Elwha: Part 1, The Journey Begins

©2013, Jon Sharpe

I've been following the saga of the Elwha since a chance trip through Port Angeles 15 years ago. Back then I saw highway signs announcing that the Elwha Dam was going to be removed. That surprised me because Washington is so proud of its hydropower. I've been following the story ever since. In my current role as Outreach Manager for an environmental health research center, I spend a lot of time talking to people about the connection between our environment and human health, including the importance of a healthy diet. Salmon is an incredibly good source of nutrients, but like many other types of seafood, it also can be contaminated by industrial pollutants, making people wary of eating too much of it. For many Indian Tribes in the PNW, salmon is much more than a dietary staple - it is an integral part of their spiritual beliefs and a member of the their extended family. Given all these connections between salmon and human health, it seemed like a field trip to the Elwha was in order. I visited the area between June 24th and 27th, 2013.

The source of the Elwha is deep in the Olympic Mountains, pristine because it's protected by the Olympic National Park. It flows north for 45 miles to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The mouth of the river is adjacent to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Reservation just west of Port Angeles.

The Elwha Dam was built in 1910 by an enterprising developer named Thomas Aldwell who wanted to bring electricity to the frontier town of Port Angeles. The town and even the state were enthusiastic supporters of the dam and the logging and paper factories that were built when the dam began supplying electricity. The reservoir that collected behind the Elwha Dam was called Lake Aldwell. A second dam, Glines Canyon Dam, was built upstream in 1926 to meet the rising demand for electricity. The reservoir that collected behind Glines Canyon Dam was called Lake Mills.

The saga of the dam removal began in 1986 when the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and others petitioned for the removal of both Elwha River dams. The US Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992. In 2000, the US Department of the Interior purchased the dams. Dam removal began on September 15, 2011. The Seattle Times newspaper covered the story and recently published a book about the Elwha restoration. In June, I had the opportunity to return to Port Angeles and the Elwha River. This is the first installment in a series of posts about what I saw and learned on my "environmental health field trip" to the Elwha.

Marilyn Hair visits the beach at the mouth of the Elwha River. The sandbar in the background is newly formed from sediment carried by the river from the former dam sites.

Next, in Part 2 of this story: The Restoration of the Elwha River.

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