Elwha Dam Project: The Valley Before
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One of eleven major rivers which drain the Olympic Range in Washington State, the Elwha flows approximately 40 miles (60 km) northward from its source at Dodwell-Rixon Pass (el. 4,777 ft /1,456m) to the mouth at the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. For nearly a century, two dams have been in place on the river, approximately 5 and 12 miles (8 km, 18 km) upstream from the mouth. These concrete dams are being removed beginning September 17, 2011, in an unprecedented Federal project focused not only on the Elwha watershed but as a significant basis of study for similar potential projects nationwide. Cutting and blasting the dams away is an estimated 2 ½ to 3 year procedure.
The first objections to the dams were officially raised in the United States Senate in the 1940’s, on the arguments that they contained no fish ladder system and that they had been placed illegally. Their removal is an important point in our ongoing national, and increasingly global, conversation about environment, economics, culture, and appropriate public policy.
The main technical goal of the removals is re-establishment of native salmon populations throughout the Elwha watershed and restoring native plant species to approximately 20 miles (30 km) of re-exposed valley walls, as the two corresponding lakes recede. In addition to the primary dam removal scope, the project entails numerous scientific studies, genetic banking of native species, river redirection projects and construction of associated facilities including hatcheries, new bridges and migration-enhancing culverts. The Federal entities involved are numerous, and include The Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, US Geological Survey, and the US Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
I began this series of paintings in 2008 as a way to document, in paint, those aspects of the Elwha Valley which would be affected visually by the removal of the dams. Due to freed lake silt from behind the dams, the downstream riverbed is expected to rise roughly 1 meter, which will displace water, increasing its scour of adjacent banks, and encouraging its redirection into any number of former channels across the delta. Without the buffering effect of the two artificial lakes, flushing of the watershed will be much faster, and the river is expected to be far more dynamic in the future.
Preliminary effects of the change are already visible, while other scientific results and visual impacts will take decades to become clear. For a landscape painter interested in documentation and witness, the interwoven pull of cultural narrative and ongoing, often jarring, visual transformations has been irresistible.