Elwha restoration research reinforced by local filmmaker

Posted 11/22/22

The Elwha River’s recovery is a story of hope when the world needs it most.

An essay by local filmmaker and writer Jessica Plumb describing over a decade of delving into what happens when …

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Elwha restoration research reinforced by local filmmaker


The Elwha River’s recovery is a story of hope when the world needs it most.

An essay by local filmmaker and writer Jessica Plumb describing over a decade of delving into what happens when dams come down was recently released in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2022.

“I’m grateful because what I have seen over this last 10 years is that the Elwha story is so much bigger than any of us and that it truly inspires people,” Plumb said in an interview with The Leader.

She’s best known in Jefferson County for producing a feature documentary, “Return of the River,” which was the opening night film at the Port Townsend Film Festival in 2014.

Over the years since the film was released, and screened over a dozen times in Port Townsend, many viewers have asked: What happened next?

This essay essentially answers that question, reflecting on a decade-long journey of restoration on the Elwha River.

The piece originally appeared in Orion Magazine, and can be read at orionmagazine.org/article/a-river-reawakened.

“I’m truly grateful that my essay, my totally personal essay, got selected for this Best American Science and Nature Writing,” Plumb said.

Her history with dams, however, runs even farther back than her time with the Elwha.

Before first arriving on the Olympic Peninsula 22 years ago, she spent time in China where her travels took her to the Yangtze River during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

“It is one of those moments in life that I can still remember vividly,” Plumb said.

While taking a ferry down the river, making stops at the towns along the way, the scenes she saw stuck.

“As we pulled in on this enormous creaking boat, there were bright red lines painted on the landscape and on the buildings, and those bright red lines showed the future inundation level of the reservoir behind the future Three Gorges Dam,” Plumb said. “Every town that we stopped at was below those red lines. Every one. And they were bustling with activity; there were markets, there were kids, there were schools, there was just tons of life.”

“It was as if the water was never going to rise,” she added.

“That is the context that I had in my mind when I approached the Elwha story.”

She later learned of the baiji dolphin, which acts much in the same way as the salmon do in the Elwha, going back and forth between the river and the sea. Since the dam went up, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has declared the baiji extinct, which makes it first dolphin species driven to extinction due to the impact of humans.

With this experience firmly folded into her psyche, she begins her essay watching in wonder as the Elwha came down:

“In September 2011, I stood on a river overlook with children from my daughter’s elementary school, all of us transfixed by a giant jackhammer pounding cement to rubble. Below us, a waterfall raged through the first notch carved in the Lower Elwha Dam, as dust rose in the September sunshine, drifting over Douglas fir and cedar crowns. Trees were the only spectators old enough to remember when the Elwha River ran free, a century earlier. The rest of us stood in awe, watching the world’s largest dam removal to date, feeling time start to spin in reverse.”

That moment is when her documentary climaxed, but Plumb’s journey along the river continued.

“For me, this has been an incredible privilege to slowly, over time, document something that’s really unfolding in our backyard,” Plumb said.

She recently returned from a symposium of scientists who have been researching the restoration of the last 10 years.

“The Elwha watershed’s recovery story is far from over. In some ways, the science story is just beginning,” Plumb said.

“The goals transcend any one person’s lifetime,” she added.

Not only have the salmon returned, but a vast web of life has, as well, which her essay explores.

While the Elwha continues its recovery, the public eye, and Plumb’s, has turned toward the Snake River dams.

“I am certainly among the group that agrees that Snake River dam removal is necessary if the goal is to save the species of salmon that use the Snake River and to support the southern resident killer whale population,” she said.

Much of her thinking comes down to specifics of place.

“It’s taken a long time for me to really get to know the Pacific Northwest ecosystem and how salmon are absolutely at the center of our ecosystem,” Plumb said. “There are rivers where that may not be the case. There are parts of the world where the tradeoffs are such that power is the more vital benefit out of a dam.”

Those who want to explore more of Plumb’s insights can find her essay in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2022, on sale at Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend.