New York Times analysis of estuarine development at the mouth of the Elwha

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In the early days before the removal of the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams that returned the Elwha River to its free-flowing state, most talk was focused on the return of salmon to a once-prodigious Native fishery. Some raised valid concerns about the post-removal turbidity as decades of sedimentary buildup behind the dams washed down to the sea: making the river water too cloudy for hatchery fish to survive in outbound migration much less the return spawning trip from the sea.

Eventually — in a decade or more, Dr. Warrick said — all of the sediment that had accumulated behind the dams will be gone. Then, the researchers predict, the river will revert to its pre-dam pattern, moving about 300,000 cubic yards of sediment downstream each year to the beaches.

Though the geology of California differs from that of the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Warrick said, this project demonstrates that dam removal may remedy beach erosion in both regions.

The idea is popular among some environmental lawyers and legal scholars who have long argued that beaches have “sand rights” — a right to sand that would naturally flow to them if people and their infrastructure had not gotten in the way. Advocates of sand rights say anyone who interferes with the flow of sediment to and along the shoreline should be required to mitigate the effects.

Once the water levels had gone down behind these dams the amount of sedimentary infill in these impoundment lakes was fully revealed. The entire contour of the valleys where the lakes had been had slowly filled up with sand, silt, and gravel. Deprived of their source of natural replenishment beaches and wetlands downstream had become anemic, requiring bolstering with rip-rap or other artificial means (as the law of unintended consequences rears its head). Reconnected with a century of undelivered sediment, the beaches at the mouth of the Elwha and nearby along the Strait of Juan de Fuca are rebounding at a reassuring rate as the turbidity of the Elwha’s waters continues to improve.

Read the full New York Times article from July 15, 2015 here.

Largest chinook run in decades on the Elwha River

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Chinook salmon swimming upstream.

Remove a few dams, wait for the turbidity to settle, and whiz-bang! KOMO and other sources are reporting the best Chinook salmon run on the newly re-wilded Elwha in decades [my bold]:

During a one-day survey in September, biologists counted 1,741 adult Chinook and mapped 763 reds between the remnants of the Glines Canyon Dam and the river mouth. About 75 percent of those were spotted upstream of the former Elwha Dam site, park officials said.

The biologists navigated over 13 miles of the Elwha River and tributaries, walking and snorkeling to find living and dead salmon along the river from Glines Canyon Dam to the river mouth. They also surveyed lower portions of three river tributaries, including Indian Creek, Hughes Creek, and Little River.

Results from the survey indicate this year’s Chinook return is one of the strongest since 1992, according to park officials.

More good news for the Earth, the state, and the Elwha-Klallam people.

Some good news from the post-dam removal Elwha River

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Elwha River (Image by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons)

Some good news from the Elwha River, where dam removal has cleared the way for returning Chinook salmon. This species –unknown in these waters for the better part of a century since the raising of the Glines Canyon Dam, have been spotted in the river above the former dam site.

One year after chinook were sighted— the first in 100 years — in the Elwha River above the site of the former Elwha Dam, adult chinook again have been spotted above the dam site, about 8 miles west of Port Angeles.

Wildlife biologists have counted at least 500 adult chinook in the river, as well as a few pink salmon and coho, said Rainey McKenna, spokeswoman for Olympic National Park, in which most of the river runs.

The official count will be released in November, but biologists said the run looks nearly identical to that of 2012.

“The run is every bit as strong as last year,” McKenna said.

Read the remainder at KOMO News.

Recent Elwha hatchery release said to fare better than previous efforts

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A note from the Elwha River and the efforts of WA-DNR and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal efforts to repopulate the newly-undammed Elwha with a fresh population of salmonids:

State Department of Fish and Wildlife staff took specific precautions to ensure that nearly 1 million baby chinook salmon would survive after they were released into the sediment-plagued Elwha River at the beginning of the month.

There have been no fish deaths observed, an agency official said.

The release that began May 31 was the first since a still-undetermined number of year-old chinook salmon were found dead along the sediment-congested river in the days following an April 5 release of 196,575 smolts from the Fish and Wildlife fish-rearing channel about 3.5 miles from the mouth of the river.

Hatchery workers changed their strategy this time, acclimating smolts in hatchery tubs to water with a level of turbidity similar to that they’d encounter in the wild. Workers report finding no dead fish between the hatchery and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Even if these aren’t native salmonids, at least those they are releasing aren’t instantly dying by the thousands. Read the rest here from Jeremy Schwartz at Peninsula Daily News (Port Angeles WA).

Unusually high sediment load from post-removal Elwha chokes seafloor kelp forests

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Elwha River Dam Removal by flickr user Paul Cooper (pecooper98362). All rights revert to originator.
Elwha River Dam Removal by flickr user Paul Cooper (pecooper98362). All rights revert to originator.

A not-entirely-unexpected result; indeed a return to what is by credible accounts the native state of the seafloor at the mouth of the Elwha:

The changes on the seabed are dramatic, from better than 80 to 90 percent coverage by kelp to an environment that is almost completely devoid of kelp. “It’s shocking,” Berry said. “It’s not subtle.”

It’s a similarly big change on the water surface, where great floating rafts of bull kelp have disappeared because the rocky substrate their hold fasts grab onto on the sea floor are smothered over in soft silt.

But it’s a back to the future type of transformation, experts think. Early maps show no kelp at the mouth of the Elwha, notes Jon Warrick of the USGS at Santa Cruz.

Read more here. Video of the denuded seafloor can be seen here.

Jumping the gun on the Elwha?

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The release of Chinook smolts from the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe Fish Hatchery was a disaster. Seabury Blair Jr. at the Kitsap Sun observes:

Two days after I hiked the sandy, rocky desolation that used to be Lake Mills, as many as 200,000 chinook salmon were killed in what has to be one of the biggest blunders in the history of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The year-old salmon were released from the new $16 million Elwha Hatchery run by the state and Lower Elwha Klallam tribe on April 5. Most — if not all — were killed when they tried to swim downstream through the thick gray goop that is the lower Elwha River, created by the removal of two dams built illegally in 1910.

Hatchery officials said water tests taken the night before showed an acceptable level of turbidity, but that the level of dissolved sediment increased overnight before the release. Blair reports the Elwha becomes predictably sediment-laden where Lake Mills used to lie, downstream of the hatchery, saying “I don’t need a degree in biology to tell you that no fish could live in that water.”

Meanwhile, the Peninsula Daily News reports conservation groups are fighting the planned releases on wild salmonid welfare grounds:

Four conservation groups have ramped up their efforts to prevent the releases next spring of hatchery-bred steelhead and coho salmon smolts during the ongoing $325 million Elwha River salmon restoration project.

The groups filed requests last week in federal District Court in Tacoma for a preliminary injunction and a partial summary judgment to prevent the releases, saying the plans should be reviewed for compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA, and that they would harm species listed as threatened under the act.

In their request for an injunction, the groups want to halt a planned April release of about 175,000 steelhead smolts and about 425,000 hatchery coho salmon smolts from the Lower Elwha Klallam hatchery into the Elwha River, much of which is in Olympic National Park.

Earthfix (from KCTS9 Public Television)


As eager as all are to see robust fish populations return to the Elwha, I’m still mystified at the state/tribal decision to release the doomed  smolts. It was understood the native salmonid population of the Elwha would be suppressed for a time owing to increased turbidity in the wake of the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. Why not give these native populations a chance to repopulate the pristine upper reaches of the Elwha first; let nature retake its course: the one the river finally cleanly cuts for it through layer after layer of man-accreted crud? The economic blah blah of industrial-scale salmon runs might sound like a quick marketing victory for WADFW and put stars in the eyes of tribal leaders seeking tangible success stories, but doesn’t it give lie to all the rationales around ‘restoring the natural state of the river’ if the first thing we do –the thing we couldn’t wait to do, at the cost of 200,000 chinook smolts– is build yet another barrier to that natural state to replace the two we just knocked down?

Until the bureaucrats, rangers, fisheries managers, and tribal leaders involved in this unsatisfying state of affairs are willing to drink a cupful of river water dipped every 100 yards between the hatchery and the Strait, I say let the river alone.

Sand bars forming at the mouth of the Elwha River

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I’ve been following the recovery of the Elwha River since the removal of its dams last year. This report, the positive result, and the promise that this positive result will continue are at once scientifically important to the re-wilding movement and heartwarming:

…A combination of lakes created by the dams being completely drained and heavy rains over the past few months have sent pulses of caramel-colored sediment into the azure waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and have started to form the sandbars, which are often clearly visible from the air.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated it would be this visual,” Shaffer said.

“It’s just striking.”

Scientists on the project estimate the two dams held back 25 million cubic yards of sand, silt, cobble and gravel.

Only about 10 percent of that has found its way to the mouth of the river or into the Strait, said Ian Miller, a coastal hazards specialist with Washington Sea Grant and one of a small army of researchers surveying beaches on either side of the Elwha’s gaping maw to see where the sediment is going.

“We still think that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sediment delivery,” Miller said…

Read the rest of the article at The Oregonian.

Creation site of the Lower Elwha Klallam people revealed after dam removal

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Jamie Valadez, Klallam language teacher, dips a pendant into water in one of the bowls of the rock that is the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s creation site during the tribe’s first visit in nearly a century. Behind her is Luana Arakawa. — Photo by Wendy Sampson. All rights reserved.

There’s no part of me so bereft of my sense of origin that I can truly identify with the wholehearted joy this reconnection must engender in the hearts of the Lower Elwha Klallam people, but that doesn’t prevent me from feeling a great sense of pleasure at the improvement of their circumstances.

The creation site referenced in the stories of the Lower Elwha Klallam people has been buried under the waters of Lake Aldwell until the removal of the dam & draining of the lake earlier this year.

“You could feel the power of the rock,” Charles said. “You could feel the emotions. It was really overwhelming,”

“There were a few songs and prayers and just the overwhelming joy of realizing that this is reality. It’s not a myth.”

Upper Elwha Update

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Here’s a story with video of State & Tribal fisheries officers releasing coho salmon into the middle Elwha river, restoring a fishery that has been blocked by dams since 1913. Congratulations, Lower Elwha Klallam People!