Monthly Archives: April 2016

Engineering a “natural” river: Finding parallels in the Pacific Northwest

Impressions from an ASEH 2016 field trip

By Alexander Porch

More than four years ago a remarkable thing happened along the course of the Elwha, a river on the northern edge of the Olympic National Park in Washington State, USA. In a nation renowned for the number of watercourses that have been heavily modified by the construction of dams – for irrigation, hydroelectricity and water supply – a complex operation began to remove the obstructions that had controlled and exploited the river’s flow since the early decades of the 20th century.[i] As the title of a recent publication by the Seattle Times journalist Lynda V. Mapes attests, the Elwha has now become “a river reborn;” although for better or worse is still the subject of some debate.[ii] For the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose claim to the river, its fisheries and surrounding lands, extends back thousands of years, the return to their ownership of sections of the river and the reappearance of the fish that had for so long been prevented from migrating to their natural spawning grounds is undoubtedly a reason to rejoice. Likewise, local recreational fishermen (and women), kayakers, and those appreciative of an apparently unspoilt, pristine riverscape are equally positive about the outcome. But for users of the former reservoir and visitors to camping grounds recently washed out by flooding, the benefits are perhaps less obvious.[iii]

site Elwha Dam

The site of the Elwha Dam following its removal. The embankment in the middle distance is all that remains of the original structure. Photo: Alexander Portch.

I first became aware of the Elwha and its rich and complex history through the discovery of Mapes’ book while researching possible comparative studies to consider alongside the saga of the Severn Barrage. Although the dams may not have made use of the tides as their source of energy, I found the subject fascinating as an example of what can happen to a river when a dam is built and, more interesting still, what the implications are of its subsequent removal many years later. The question arose: if a Severn Barrage were to have been built, would there have ever come a time when a case would be made for its removal and, if successful, what would the outcome be of the river’s “rebirth?

To then have the opportunity to visit the Elwha and the site of one of its former dams (there were originally two – the Glines Canyon Dam in its upper reaches, and the Elwha Dam closer to its mouth) as part of the 2016 American Society for Environmental Historians (ASEH) conference in Seattle was an unexpected, but very welcome, pleasure. The conference – at which I presented a poster on my research – was an enjoyable, productive and intellectually stimulating event, with panels ranging from the application of GIS to the study of industrial London and its overseas trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, to “twentieth-century energy frontiers” and the challenges of doing premodern environmental history. However, the visit to the Olympic Peninsula, the Elwha, and particularly the point at which the river meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca within the bounds of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s reservation, was especially memorable.

The view of the Seattle skyline from the ferry crossing Puget Sound on the return journey from the Olympic National Park. Just visible in the far distance is Mount Rainier, an active volcano. Photo: Alexander Portch.

The view of the Seattle skyline from the ferry crossing Puget Sound on the return journey from the Olympic National Park. Just visible in the far distance is Mount Rainier, an active volcano. Photo: Alexander Portch.

Since the removal of the dams a vast quantity of sediment, previously trapped many miles up-river, has been allowed to flow unobstructed to the sea, being deposited at its mouth. Local tribal members can now walk hundreds of metres out along this accumulated material; with Bald-Headed Eagles gliding majestically overhead, drawn by the return of salmon and other marine species. For me this sight was particularly striking as the Severn is also a river characterised by high volumes of sediment which, it has been suggested, would be trapped behind a barrage, potential blocking and damaging the turbines and requiring regular dredging to keep in check. I wonder what would happen following the removal of a barrage, and the release of all that aggregate?

Newly formed beach

The newly formed beach at the mouth of the Elwha River within the bounds of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribal reservation. Most of this material has been deposited within the past couple of years. Photo: Alexander Portch.

Equally interesting were the insights provided during a stop at the Elwha Dam removal site by one of the archaeologists from the National Park Service who was closely involved in the restoration project. As part of that process archaeological surveys were required, including excavations of prehistoric sites encountered in the vicinity of the dams themselves, and features that were revealed as the lake waters fell and the river resumed a more natural course. Alongside the remnants of early human activity, the dams too were recognised for their historical and archaeological significance. Having been constructed at such an early point in the development of hydroelectricity, and still retaining much of their original machinery, they had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, necessitating detailed historic building surveys prior to their removal. A Severn Barrage has frequently been cited as having an expected lifespan of up to 120 years. After that period had elapsed would it too be considered as an important part of the nation’s heritage; something requiring thorough recording and analysis before finally being retired from service? Or, conversely, would it be preserved as a monument and museum to 21st century innovation and ingenuity? One thing is for sure, at 18 kilometres (11 miles) in length it would keep archaeologists and historic building surveyors busy for a very long time!

N.B. Attendance at the ASEH conference was made possible by a travel grant from the University of Bristol’s Alumni Foundation.

Bald eagle

Bald-headed eagles wait patiently at the mouth of the Elwha, perhaps for salmon returning to their spawning grounds in the now-accessible upper reaches. Photo: Alexander Portch.

[i] https://www.nps.gov/olym/learn/nature/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm

[ii] L.V. Mapes, Elwha: A River Reborn (Seattle, 2013); see also http://projects.seattletimes.com/2016/elwha/

[iii] http://www.seattletimes.com/life/travel/elwha-valley-access-limited-after-undammed-river-wrecks-campgrounds-road/

Reflections on mud, art, history and an exhibition

By Marianna Dudley

For fotogallery please scroll to bottom

Mud. Commonplace, messy, mucky. It is something we squelch through on walks, wash off boots, and rinse away on hands. Have you ever stopped to ponder its historical significance? Its sensory delights? Its visual possibilities?

From 14 – 18 March at the University of Bristol, ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’ project invited the public to do just that, in a free exhibition of work by ceramic artist Tana West, who uses river mud to create beautiful – and thoughtful – objects that connect maker and place, process and product, material and environment.

In 2009’s ‘Subject for Change’ Tana walked the length of the River Severn, researching and digging for mud as she went. It was this artwork that captured my attention, as postdoctoral researcher investigating aspects of the Severn’s environmental history on ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’. Her rigorous research process, the importance she placed on experiencing the changing river environment, and the production of objects which held clues to the river’s history within them, connected with the research of the project on a number of levels.

When you work on the Severn, mud asserts itself, historically and physically. It is a river whose water is the colour of chocolate milk, dense with mud and silt particles kept suspended by surface run-off upstream and the tidal movements of the lower reaches. Environmental historian of the early modern Severn landscape, John Morgan, shared with me a source he’d found in the Bristol city archives, in which the river mud was held in high esteem.  In a letter from Captain Charles Symes to Edward Southwell about building out near Sea Mills in 1694, Symes claimed of local river sand that ‘when tis Dry its Licke aney Rock and much stronger then aney Other Morter, (as well it may) Takeing up Such a Deal of Lymme’.  This mud, much like the mud that Tana uses in her art, was valued for its malleable qualities, its strength and its usefulness.

In recent times, not everyone has valued mud in the Severn. John’s source contrasts with a modern source I’ve found, a 1966 article in The Western Daily Press. It discussed the possibility of a tidal barrage across the Severn which would have the effect, the author thought, of stopping the tidal movement and allowing the silt in the water to settle, turning the estuary from brown to a ‘more attractive’ blue.  Until that point, I hadn’t considered the muddy ‘brown-ness’ of the river to be a problem, or something that people might not value. I am fascinated by the tides and the rich ecosystem supported by the mud and silt of the river. But to some others, mud is problematic. It is not a passive substance, but something that has shaped opinion, and identities. Between early-modern builders and twentieth century tidal power enthusiasts is a big space in which to think about mud.  The idea for ‘Into the Mud’, and later ‘Land + Water,’ was born.

‘Into the Mud’ secured funding from the AHRC’s Connected Communities Summer Festival fund to hold an outdoor creative workshop on the banks of the river Severn in June 2015. Tana led the workshop, which brought together members of ‘The Power and Water’ and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ projects (which share research interests in water, rivers, and local understandings of place and identity); amateur potters; members of a local community group, Ideal Action; and passers-by. By creating a temporary manufacturing base down by the river, the workshop enabled informal, creative, environmentally-responsive expressions and discussions to take place. Two participants wrote about the experience here.

But we weren’t done with mud yet – there was more to say, and do. Tana visited the University of Bristol and I showed her around Royal Fort House, the home of the university’s research institutes. The ornate rococo detail on the ceilings, walls and cornices, Tana revealed, were made using some of the same techniques she’d shown us in the workshop. There were alcoves crying out for vases; plinths pleading for pottery!

We decided to hold an exhibition called ‘Land + Water’, that combined new pieces made by Tana in response to the venue; older pieces made from Severn mud; and the products of the riverside workshop. Two talks were also planned, with the help of the Institute for Advanced Studies (who also made available the beautiful Verdon-Smith Room and all manner of logistical support).

At the first public talk, Tana talked about her work and research, with comments by the project leads of ‘The Power and the Water’ (Prof. Peter Coates) and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ (Prof. Owain Jones), who both participated in the workshop. In the second, organized by IAS, a multidisciplinary collection of academics spoke on anything ‘mud’ related, for 5 minutes, to inspire conversations surrounded by Tana’s work.  Throughout the week members of the public were welcomed to the exhibition, and left their comments in a Visitor Book. Among the works on display were ornate vases and ‘mass’ produced tea-cups (river mud turned delicate, beautiful and functional); ceramic installations ‘Into the Vernacular’ and ‘Under the Road, a River’ (that echo the utility of ceramics in building, sewerage, and water systems); and a print of diatoms, the microscopic inhabitants of mud that sustain the wildlife of the Severn estuary, made using Severn mud on paper.

Through ticket ‘sales’ for the (free) events, and visitor comments, we know that over one hundred people interacted with the exhibition, notwithstanding the challenge of finding it – the University of Bristol desperately needs a dedicated exhibition space. We also know that, for some, seeing Tana’s work, engaging with the discussions around it, and thinking deeper about mud, land and water, has changed the way they view the river’s place in city life and everyday experience.

Mary-Jane, Librarian: ‘I shall look more closely at the different types/colours of the Severn estuary mud in future’

Ben, postgraduate student: ‘ A superb reflective experience. Thank you for letting me in to your way of the seeing the world. A beautifully layered exhibition portraying such a dynamic place’

Kelvin, unemployed: ‘Love the way the work fits in the building – coming up the stairs and seeing this is a brilliant complement’

Robert, historian: Fabulous. I begin my mornings at Sea Mills on the river bank by the station – 3 minutes by train into Clifton Down. This is such a stimulating exhibition and way of bringing the river into the city (and into Royal Fort House)

Faye, ecologist: ‘An interesting study of the environment, history, and art. Thank you’.

(all comments from the ‘Land + Water’ visitor’s book)

 

Photogallery

All images by Marianna Dudley