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The Life of the Elwha:
Biography of a River

by Daniel Jack Chasan
Crosscut, May 1, 2012

Author Lynda Mapes' new book isn't a story about dams or salmon.
It's a love story to the river itself.

Lower Elwha River Dam (photo Brewbooks / Flickr) The basic story is familiar by now but still powerful: Two big concrete dams that blocked the Elwha River for almost a century and once seemed destined to stand there indefinitely, like Roman ruins, are now gone. Huge runs of fish (pink salmon) and huge individual fish (chinook) that once spawned in the upper river may reappear, if not before our eyes then before the eyes of our children or grandchildren. If they do, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe that caught those fish for centuries will be able to catch them again. Society has re-thought some early-20th-century dreams of progress.

In her new book, "Elwha: A River Reborn" (The Mountaineers Books, co-published with The Seattle Times; photography by Steve Ringman; softcover, $29.95), Lynda Mapes, who has covered all this (very well) for the Seattle Times, has -- sensibly -- kept her focus tightly on the Elwha. This is not a book about dams or salmon or struggling milltowns. It is about the Elwha.

Within that framework, Mapes looks at a lot. This isn't the definitive book on the Elwha -- years from now, someone will probably write something much longer and less readable. Still, it covers all the important bases: the science of the river and its restoration, the history of the dams and their removal, the politics that made removal possible, the people who wanted to see the dams come down and those who wanted to save them. She obviously likes the place and likes the people, and her descriptions reflect that.

She has gotten deeply into the science -- perhaps more deeply than some casual readers will want -- and clearly enjoys hanging out with the scientists doing field research. "Easy to dismiss as mere slime," she writes about the periphyton on the river bottom, "it's the grassland of the river, a vast pasture of algae, fungi and bacteria ... Stoked by sunlight, it is a year-round standing crop of nutrients at the base of the food chain."

The river is naturally messy and complex and the dams temporarily simplified it. She also notes that levees built near the river mouth to protect property owners will keep a portion of it simplified indefinitely. (A more-detailed map or maps would have helped. Mapes talks about very specific places, and one doesn't always know exactly where they are. On the other hand, there's a timeline and a very useful index.)

Mapes expands the equation to include not only periphyton and fish, but also the aesthetics of early-20th-century industrial structures. She writes about the Elwha Dam's "main control panel . . . .with its rows of dials and gauges set in panels of oil-black slate, supported by a curvilinear row of steel Doric columns." By destroying this structure, Mapes argues -- and thereby erasing the legacy of the workers who labored and in some cases died to build it -- we have lost, as well as gained.

She lays out the whole messy political sausage-making process. The federal government finally swamped all rational opposition in a sea of cash. The hundreds of millions of cubic yards of sediment backed up behind the dams were echoed only by the hundreds of millions of dollars required to grease the skids for dam removal.

So far, removing the actual dams has cost only $35 million, but the total cost is expected to reach $325 million. More than half of that sum has gone into a (figuratively) gold-plated new water treatment facility for Port Angeles - the price of the city's allegiance. The dams provided power to the big pulp and paper mill that has been Port Angeles' biggest employer and the federal government agreed to buy them and to replace their output with cheap Columbia River hydropower from the Bonneville Power Administration.

The companies that owned the mill and dams therefore backed the plan -- who wouldn't? -- as did a local citizens' committee organized by dam opponents. Hard-core opposition to dam removal came not from anyone who was looking at the numbers, but from local citizens for whom the dams symbolized economic progress (and some of whom enjoyed catching bass in the reservoirs). (One wonders why she omitted the role played by Lower Elwha Klallam tribal attorney Russell Busch.)

People who hated to see the dams come down get a chance to speak, and are treated as sympathetically as -- albeit at less length than -- the people fought to take them out.

While Mapes was right to keep her focus on the Elwha, a lot of her observations inevitably bring up questions of wider geographical significance. When she talks about the natural complexity of the river, for example, one may think of UW geologist David Montgomery's book about salmon, "King of Fish." Montgomery explains how complex the rivers of western Washington once were: They had braided main channels, side channels, marshy banks, flood plains into which they periodically spread, huge log jams. If we want to restore salmon populations, he argues, we have to restore some of that original structure. He has suggested buying up lightly developed flood plains and setting them aside for habitat and recreation. (He would preserve the existing farms there, too.)

The only person who winds up looking churlish is former Senator Slade Gorton, who never liked the idea of taking out the dams, but got Congress to appropriate the money that started the process rolling. When Mapes calls Gorton up, she finds that he still doesn't like the idea, thinks the wrong side won, doesn't want to talk about it. He hangs up the phone. Gorton opposed dam removal at least partly because he feared it would pave the way for political attacks on more significant dams, including those on the lower Snake.

Well, salmon advocates certainly want -- and the federal courts may eventually force -- the federal government to seriously consider breaching those Snake River dams. The first Snake River salmon population was listed as endangered the year before Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act -- and would have preceeded whatever happened on the Elwha. But surely, the well-publicized demise of the Elwha dams has shown the wider public that removing big concrete dams is not only thinkable, it's doable. Gorton may have been right.

Not everyone thinks this is a bad thing. Surely, it's not bad for the fish. Mapes describes big Elwha River chinook, still banging their noses against the dam, circling in a pool right below the concrete wall even as demolition begins. For many people, that is and should be the heart of the matter.

Daniel Jack Chasan
The Life of the Elwha: Biography of a River
Crosscut, May 1, 2012

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