For more than 100 years, the mouth of the Elwha River was a sterile chute dumping out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Shortly after the dam removal began in 2011, a century’s worth of sediment began to flow downstream in the newly freed currents. And now, five years later, the reborn delta is a complex, thriving tideland with acres and acres of ponds, sloughs and flats–ideal rearing habitat for juvenile salmon and countless nearshore critters.
This weekend, Weston and I found ourselves in Port Angeles for a basketball tournament (his, not mine) and we stole away before Sunday’s games to visit, walk, and throw rocks into ice-covered ponds covering this new-yet-ancient landscape. As with every visit, I found myself buoyed by the rebirth of the Elwha. It’s simply one of the most uplifting places I’ve ever experienced.
I’m not sure if Weston fully appreciates the significance of what’s happened there, or if it’s lost on him, but I know it’s not just a great rearing place for juvenile fish–it’s also perfect for juvenile humans. And adults, too. Visit if you can. Walk into the lower dam site, close your eyes and imagine the canyon filled with stagnant reservoir water, then open them to see the miracle of rapids, flowing water, and gorgeous steelhead runs. Drive down to the mouth and walk the delta beach and feel the power we have to undo past mistakes. I guarantee it will lift your spirits. Next up: The Klamath, the Snake, Matilija Creek, San Francisquito…
Four years ago, and for 100 years before that, the mouth of the Elwha River was a sterile chute running into the Strait of Juan de Fuca at a 90-degree angle. There was no habitat for juvenile salmon to rest in, feed or acclimate to salt water, and no beach to speak of. It was, in a word, depressing.
But look at it now! The sediment that was trapped behind the dams is making its way to the sea, and creating a spectacular estuary and delta. This is ideal salmon habitat, the kind necessary for thriving runs of wild fish, and all those sloughs, tidal ponds and flats are home to countless juvenile salmon, sea-run cutthroat, bull trout and forage fish. For humans, there are acres of new beach and, on the rare occasion when the swell lines up right, a world-class surf break.
But there’s still plenty to be done. My friends at the Coastal Watershed Institute are working year-round to monitor and restore the nearshore waters, and document the changes taking place. A huge thank you to Anne Schaffer for leading the charge, and to Tom Roorda who provided the aerial photo above. The Elwha dam removal and restoration is one of the great environmental stories of our times. I highly recommend a visit. To witness what’s happening there is just good for the soul.
It’s difficult to put into words exactly how it feels to experience the newly free Elwha River. Gratitude, for sure, for all the people and organizations who put so much into bringing the dams down. And awe, as nature takes over and the river finds it’s new-old path to the sea. And fun, of course, to be there taking it all in with my good friend (and DamNation producer/underwater photographer) Matt Stoecker.
We floated the Elwha this weekend under crazy blue skies and warm air, with the winners of the Patagonia/DamNation photo contest and our gracious hosts at Olympic Raft & Kayak. All around amazing experience. Despite what the dam-removal critics said, the sediment load in the water has settled out quickly, leaving the water clear, with the slight milky, blue-green tint one expects of a glacial river in summertime. As we came into the former reservoir zone above the lower dam site, I was blown away to look up 40 feet above us to see the old water line still clearly defined on the rocks and trees. It was like finding a river at the bottom of a lake, which is essentially what’s happened here.
At the actual dam site, after much discussion and scouting, we decided to become the first commercial trip Olympic Raft & Kayak had taken down through what they’ve named That Dam Rapid. A short, steep, highly technical Class 4 drop through what used to be Elwha Dam proved to be as hairy as it looked, and provided plenty of adrenaline to jolt us out of the all the dreamy wonder and gratitude we were feeling. Great ride, and a perfect end to the float.
That night, Olympic Raft & Kayak hosted an outdoor screening of DamNation in the warm–and amazingly for the Olympic Peninsula–dry summer night. Mikal Jakobal, the activist who painted the now-famous crack on the dam here back in 1987, made a surprise appearance, much to the crowd’s delight.
Finally, the next day, Matt and I drove down to the where the Elwha runs into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This was, perhaps, the most tangible evidence of a river reborn, and an uplifting view of what a free river is supposed to do. Instead of the river channel running straight into saltwater along a sterile, clean-cobble beach as it once was, the Elwha had built a tremendous delta. Sediment, trapped behind the dams for 100 years, is now creating a complex system of barrier islands, sloughs, ponds and wetlands. The most perfect juvenile salmon habitat imaginable. We stood there in the wind, absorbing what it all means and feeling the uplift of a rare and valuable victory.
April 17th, 2013
Dear Secretary Jewell—
First of all, congratulations on your Senate confirmation. As someone who makes a living in the outdoor recreation industry, I am excited to have “one of our own” making the tough decisions about how this country uses its public land and water. Though I’m sure you won’t lack for various interests expressing their hopes for your tenure, I thought here at the beginning, I might presume to offer a few thoughts:
As you know, when giant corporations set their minds to something, it’s not easy to hold them back. But last year, in Alaska, they did a pretty good job of it themselves. Shell’s Kulluk oil rig, carrying more than 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel, ran aground off Kodiak in rough seas on New Year’s Eve. Their other oil rig, the Noble Discoverer, dragged anchor and nearly ran aground last summer, then caught fire in port. Throughout 2012, Shell’s Arctic effort was repeatedly cited and fined for problems with pollution-control systems and illegal fluid discharges. Their spill-response barge failed inspection before it even made it to Alaska.
These events took place following BP’s epic disaster in the Gulf, at a time when the very future of offshore Arctic oil exploitation was at stake. Knowing they were under immense scrutiny, we can assume Shell put all of its best resources and finest minds on the job, and well…the results speak for themselves.
Secretary Jewell, I humbly request that when considering the future of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, you ask yourself: If oil companies can’t even get exploratory equipment into place without accidents, problems and violations, how will they perform when their platforms are connected to the sea bottom pumping millions of gallons of oil and the inevitable Arctic storm blows in or the pack ice pushes through? Is there any reason to believe they’ll handle this better than the far simpler task of towing the Kulluk? Or anchoring the Noble Discoverer? Or, for that matter, operating the Deepwater Horizon?
Another decision you will be facing shortly is whether or not natural gas companies should be required to disclose the chemicals they’re injecting into the ground for hydraulic fracturing. The gas industry argues that the process is safe, and that disclosure of secret formulas would create “unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles.” Hmm…
If the chemicals they’re injecting beneath our homes and watersheds are so safe, why not tell us what they are?
Secretary Jewell, I propose we let them off the hook. Tell the gas companies they’re free to keep chemical formulas shrouded in secrecy on one condition: Company officers and shareholders must consume—in a public forum—one cup of their proprietary fracking liquid. I realize this might sound medieval, but it’s really a win-win for all parties involved. If the gas companies agree, local residents can feel better about groundwater issues in fracking areas. If they refuse, well…then we know that federal oversight—including “bureaucratic obstacles”—is exactly what the industry requires.
I know you have a lot on your plate, most of it the unenviable task of finding a balance between corporate profits and protection of our public resources. The sage grouse decision will not be easy, pitting domestic energy exploration against an iconic species of the American West. The Pebble Mine, should it be approved, could yield billions of dollars worth of precious metals, but would place the world’s largest open-pit mine, with all its habitat destruction and toxic chemicals, at the headwaters of the last great salmon watersheds. And of course, we’re just scratching the surface of your new reality here.
But I also ask that you look at some internal issues as well. When we citizens paid for the $320 million Elwha Dam removal project, it was a great victory for wild salmon and all who love the idea of free-flowing rivers. But the fact that the Park Service, which now falls under your leadership, saw fit to use $16 million of that budget to build a new fish hatchery goes beyond a colossal waste of taxpayer money. All the best available science in recent years shows that the mere presence of hatchery fish works as a powerful detriment to wild salmon recovery. Which, last time I checked, was one of the primary stated goals of the dam removal in the first place.
Building and operating this hatchery, in what’s supposed to be the crown jewel of wild salmon recovery, is what the old timers refer to as shooting one’s self in the foot. It’s as if the Federal Government spent $300+ million on a lung cancer prevention program, and allocated $16 million of the budget to building a new cigarette factory.
I understand the hatchery is already built, but I ask that you look into this issue and find an operating solution that will help the Elwha Dam removal project meet it’s stated goals. More importantly, I hope you can work to keep this kind of gross misappropriation of public money from happening again as we work to recover natural watersheds around the country.
Thank you for your time and consideration, Secretary Jewell. I think I speak for a majority of your fellow outdoor recreationists and businesses when I say we are proud of your appointment and hopeful for the future under your watch. Good luck. Here’s to hoping you find time in your busy schedule to get outside and enjoy the natural wonders our country has to offer.