Law of Mother Earth: Downing Elwha Dam

Law of Mother Earth: Downing Elwha Dam – Success Comes with Perseverance


By Hwaa Irfan


It does not always happen, actually one is not sure if it happens at all, but sometimes, when we admit to our mistakes, we are more able to restore the balance that should be. So it was with the Elwha River Dam located inside the Olympic National Park of Washington, U.S.

A 108ft monstrosity may not match up to the Glines Canyon Dam at 210 ft which was torn down, but like all man-made dams they reap havoc by upsetting the natural order of things that cause the kind of environmental nightmares that can only be rectified by the removal of the dam.

Downing a dam is no easy feat, but it was a battle long fought for by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe using the rights of a treaty to restore the balance that would enable the all-important salmon to take its course – respecting the nature of all life, and not just one’s life. Constructed back in the 1900’s, the dam cut off the salmon’s route where once an estimated 400,000 salmons migrated on a 45-mile journey much more than the current 3,000 population that exists today. Both the Elwha and the Glines Dam were built by Toronto-born businessman Thomas Aldwell to provide electricity to Port Angeles. The Elwha Dam was not built according to standards – and the foundation began to collapse as the lake behind it swelled, so a quick-fix was resorted to using concrete to plug the dam.

The Klallam lost 15 villages, food security, and their medicinal plants. The villages of the indigenous Klallam were inundated, fish stocks were depleted, and 18 million cubic yards of valuable sediment built up in the lakes created by the dams. The loss of that sediment flowing upstream led to erosion of the area.

The Battle

There was no delay in responding to the situation as the Klallam people objected from the very beginning. By 197 in U.S. vs. Washington, the indigenous treaty fishing  rights were upheld. In 1986, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission initiated a plan to remove the dams. However in 1990, the federal government only began to study how to remove the dams, but by 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. By 2000, the federal government ‘acquired’ the dams at a time when the only benefit of the dams was electricity supply to one mill in Port Angeles.

The Celebration

God only gave humans amongst all His creations the gift of choice. The elemental kingdom along with plants and animals do not have that choice. They have no confusion over their purpose in life, except when they are pushed beyond the boundaries of their existence. Nature adapts to a point, and new species are born, but with a weaker sense of purpose, and therefore of less benefit to mankind.

For the salmon it seemed that September 17 2011 could not come soon enough, for this day marked the beginning of the end of the life of the largest removal project in U.S history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the King Salmon returns from the sea to spawn every four years or thereabouts. With this as the basis for calculation, the salmon that was ready and waiting to cross that barrier created by the dams makes the 25th generation, yet those salmon had not lost their sense of purpose.

Seventy three King Salmons or Chinooks were seen swimming at the base of the dam that had cut them off from their spawning ground 70 miles upstream.  Marking the ceremony was actor Tom Skeritt, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Governor Chris Gregoire, Senators Maria Cantwell amd Patty Murray, Lower Elwha Klallam Chairwoman Frances Charles, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor, Local congressman Norm Dicks, and others.

Connected to all life, both the Seen and the Unseen, both past and present,  Klallam elder Ben Charles said at the ceremony to Indian Country:

“I was just reading in Scripture a couple of nights ago, in Hebrews 12:1, it says we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” he said. “I see the ancestors watching. They’re happy about what’s going on. Some of them are crying, some of them are smiling. It’s been something that the people have been praying would happen. One hundred years. We never know what Creator’s time span is for answers. To us it’s a long time, to him it’s just a snap of the finger. But I’m glad it’s happening in my time.”

The feeling was also felt by Lower Elwha Klallam’s chairwoman, Frances Charles:

 “We have the prayers of the Creator (and) our ancestors who are looking down upon us. This is an historic event. It’s something our children will never forget and our elders are here to witness it. And we thank those who have gone before us, that had supported us and gave us the encouragement to carry on.”


The Cost

It is estimated that the complete removal of Elwha Dam will take three years at a cost of U.S.$350mn. It will be carried out by the Elwha Klallam, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The whole operation includes overseeing the restoration, flood control, two water treatment plants to protect the municipal water from the burden of a century of sediment build-up, reforestation and revegetation of the area, overseeing the delicate biodiversity and restoration of it, as well as restoration of the fish stock.


Frank Jnr., B. “There Are a Lot More Elwhas Out There.”

Grudnikov, K. “Elwha River Dams to be Removed; Project Largest in American History.”

Walker, R. “In Washington, Demolishing Two Dams So That the Salmon May Go Home.”

Related Topics:

Law of Mother Earth: Chile Suspends Nature Buster!

The Law of Mother Earth in Action

Mother Earth Wins Again!

The Right to Life and Mother Earth

Philippines: Indigenous Forestry Recognized

Kenya: Rights Of Mother Earth – Maasai Response

International: Indigenous Mothers Against Mercury