Ruth Buendía of Peru Wins 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize



By Monti Aguirre

Ruth Buendia and the Ene River
Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Ruth braided quick steps over the edge of the long boat and jumped off onto the beach of the Ene River. Other Asháninka women and children also got off and climbed the high riverbank. We had stopped at Saborochari village to get food for the long river journey ahead. Delicious boiled manioc and smoked fish wrapped in plantain leaves were distributed to all on the boat. We went on to Pamakiari to attend the XIV Asháninka Congress.

This was early in 2010. It was my first time on the Ene River and my first time meeting Ruth Buendía Metzoquiari. Some months before, Ruth had sent me an email asking for support, after she had learned about plans to build the Pakitzapango Dam on the Ene River in the Peruvian Amazon. I went to meet Ruth and other representatives of the Central Asháninka del Rio Ene – Asháninka Center of the Ene River – (CARE) to better understand the threats posed by the dam. It was clear at this meeting that the Asháninka felt threatened by the construction of the dam.

The health of the Ene River is crucial for the Asháninka indigenous people who depend on its fish resources, the fertile soils of its floodplains, and the many foods and other natural resources the forest provides. The dam would block the passage of sediments and the migration of fish and other aquatic organisms. Pakitzapango Dam would also negatively impact the lives of close to 10,000 people.

Ruth Buendia speaks at the Central Asháninka del Rio Ene (CARE)
Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Later that year, Ruth and CARE were successful in stopping the Pakitzapango Dam through a legal action presented by CARE. The Brazilian dam builder Odebrecht then announced that it was no longer interested in building the Tambo 40 Dam, another project proposed for the Ene, Tambo and Ucayali river basin. Both of these stalled dams represent a great victory for the people who worked so hard to protect their rivers and cultures.

Yesterday International Rivers was honored to welcome Ruth Buendía to the Bay Area – on her first trip to California – as part of a special Women Water Guardians gathering. Indigenous leaders from California welcomed Ruth, me, and an intimate group of local and international water guardians with songs for the waters of this place and the healing of the waters of the world.

Monti, Ruth and Jason after the Women Water Guardians ceremony in Mill Valley on April 27, 2014.Photo by Shaun Sakya/International Rivers
Monti, Ruth and Jason after the Women Water Guardians ceremony in Mill Valley on April 27, 2014.
Photo by Shaun Sakya/International Rivers

And today I’m overjoyed to announce that Ruth has been awarded the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize for Central and South America for her work to protect the Ene River and stop the Pakitzapango and Tambo 40 dams. Working alongside her to protect the Asháninka people and the rivers of the Peruvian Amazon is a great honor. I’m able to continue along my path as a woman water guardian because of the strength and inspiration of women like Ruth. Felicidades hermana.

An Undammed River’s Sediment Brings New Life Downstream

Katie Campbell, KCTS9

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Anne Shaffer sits on the sandy shoreline of the Elwha River and looks around in amazement. Just two years ago, this area would have been under about 20 feet of water.

So far about 3 million cubic yards of sediment — enough to fill about 300,000 dump trucks — has been released from the giant bathtubs of sediment that formed behind the two hydroelectric dams upstream. And that’s only 16 percent of what’s expected to be delivered downstream in the next five years.

All of that sediment is already reshaping the mouth of the Elwha, which empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the northern shore of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

The depth at the mouth of the river has changed by about 50 feet. Long, charcoal-colored sandy beaches have formed where there once only smooth, platter-sized cobblestones.

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“This place is like Christmas,” says Shaffer, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute. “Everyday you come out here and its something new.”

Shaffer is leading a team of researchers who are studying the Elwha’s nearshore area, where the river’s freshwater meets the saltwater tides. Shaffer explains that until recently this area was starved of sediment, and now a whole new ecosystem is forming. Her team is trying to find out what tiny creatures are moving in.

They’re searching for evidence that species like sand lance and surf smelt are using this area as spawning grounds. These tiny fish are a common food sources for juvenile salmon.

Sand lance (top) and surf smelt (bottom) by David Ayers/USGS.


Sand lance, she explained, require a very fine grain sediment in order to lay their eggs.

“We now are surrounded by the exact grain size that sand lance need to spawn,” she says.

The team scoops up bags of sand to test in the lab. So far they haven’t found evidence of sand lance spawning in this new habitat, Shaffer says. But they have found that surf smelt are spawning in areas where sandy substrate has built up.

During recent fish census surveys of the Elwha’s estuary, Shaffer’s team counted baby chum salmon in numbers they haven’t seen in years, if ever, Shaffer said. And they’ve also found a number of eulachon, a type of smelt that was once an abundant food source for coastal tribes. The eulachon is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“As soon as this habitat is available, these fish are using it,” Shaffer says. “None of us anticipated how quickly it would occur. I’d never seen a eulachon in the estuary before, but in the last three months, every time we survey, we see them.”

The drone of a single-engine plane causes Shaffer to look up and shield her eyes.

“I bet that’s Tom,” she says with a smile.

A Bird’s Eye View

Port Angeles pilot and photographer Tom Roorda has had one of the most unique perspectives during the last two and a half years while the dams have been slowly dismantled. He started taking land-survey photos of the Elwha eight years ago. Back then his photos were used to help the federal Bureau of Reclamation prepare for dam removal.

Today his jaw-dropping aerial photos capture the giant plume of sediment flowing out of the mouth of the Elwha.

“Until I started taking these pictures, no one had any idea how much sediment was coming down or how far it extended out into the strait,” Roorda said.

The flush of sediment has moved the mouth of the Elwha north by about 300 feet, creating a long skinny spit that extends into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The area that used to serve as the Elwha’s estuary has been inundated with freshwater and a new estuary is forming downstream.

“As soon as it starts to rain that sediment gets washed down into the river and we get these big gulps of sediment coming down,” Roorda said.

This winter’s rains have continued to flush sediment downstream, so much so that the river’s flow is currently 10 times higher than normal. While all that sediment is ideal for building nearshore habitat, some worry the water will be too murky for salmon. Sediment can clog and irritate their gills and make it difficult to find food.

But Shaffer for one, isn’t concerned.

“Salmon are brilliant,” she said. “They have evolved over millenia. If they’re given a chance to acclimate to it, they will.”

The First Leap?

Today the entire length of Elwha looks like a free-flowing river. That’s because recent storms have submerged the remaining 25 or so feet of the Glines Canyon Dam.

Glines Canyon Dam 3/10/14
Glines Canyon Dam, March 10, 2014, Olympic National Park


From webcam images, it’s difficult to even identify the slope of what remains of the 210-foot spillway. This is causing some to wonder how much longer it will be before the first fish leap over the concrete barrier that remains.

It may take weeks or months, but when the first leap happens, it’s not likely to be a salmon.

“Steelhead are quite the athletes. A steelhead can leap up to 12 feet in a single jump,” said John McMillan, a NOAA biologist who is tracking fish recovery on the Elwha.

McMillan is betting on steelhead — trout that, like salmon, are born in freshwater streams before migrate to marine waters. He says he’s seen steelhead ascend a 35-foot cascading waterfall by taking a series of long leaps.

Researchers are using imaging sonar to track the different fish returning to the Elwha, and they’ve found that some steelhead have already returned to the lower Elwha, McMillan said. The bulk of the run, however, is expected to take place from April to early July, he said.

Dam deconstruction will pause May 1 to minimize disruption to the steelhead spawning season.

Removal of the Lower Elwha Dam finished in March 2012. The last of the rubble of the Glines Canyon dam is expected to be gone by September 2014.