This is the first in a two-part series.
One of the two dams on the Elwha River has been completely removed and there are about 50 feet of the remaining Glines Canyon dam left. Already so much sediment has been released that its clogged up and shut down one of the water treatment plants in nearby Port Angeles, temporarily halting the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.
While sediment is a problem for infrastructure people rely on, it’s providing excellent new habitat for fish and wildlife in the Elwha watershed on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
“In a matter of five months we’ve gone from this barren, hostile environment to new estuary with really high-quality small sand,” says Anne Shaffer, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute in Port Angeles. Since 2007, Shaffer’s non-profit has been conducting research at the mouth of the Elwha, eight miles below the dam site. The institute is trying to find out how many fish are using the estuary where the river flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“This is what the nearshore restoration is all about and this is what we all try to achieve throughout Puget Sound and that it’s happening so quickly and largely silently in the Elwha nearshore. It’s just phenomenal,” Shaffer says, shaking her head in wonder as she looks out over the tidal pools and newly-formed sand banks at the mouth of the river on a recent sampling trip.
Every month Shaffer and the team come out here to see what kind of fish are using this coastal watershed to fatten up before heading out to the open ocean. And so far, the sediment is creating great new habitat. Gone are the dinner-platter-sized rocks marking a sediment-starved ecosystem. But all the dirt and clay that has turned the Elwha a chocolatey brown this spring is posing some challenges to the juvenile fish here. In a recent summary of their fish count survey data since the dam removal began in 2011, Shaffer wrote: “Our initial observations indicate a… decrease in the total number of fish, fewer chinook, higher abundance of coho, steelhead and bull trout, and a change in species percent composition.”
So a pretty mixed bag for now. And Shaffer says it’s so early in the restoration process that there aren’t any alarming trends to highlight. But some of the fish they’re pulling in on this sampling trip look a bit bedraggled.
Chris Byrnes, a fish biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and one of the fish-counting volunteers, cups a young steelhead in his hands and points out its tattered fins. “He looks really roughed up, like he’s really finding a hard time out in that river. All the steelhead look this way. They look kind of haggard.”
Six million cubic yards of sediment have already been released from the lower dam, but that’s only about 20 percent of the total amount of sediment that has collected above the two dams on this river over the past 100 years. Shaffer explains that the dramatic change that’s going on in the estuary -– the amount of sediment, new habitat, and new debris, combined with the spring snow melt — is probably making for some tired fish.
“It’s not too much of a stretch to think that the fish are experiencing some turbulence or additional physical challenges that they wouldn’t if this restoration wasn’t occurring,” Shaffer says. “In general we’re seeing what we’ve coined a ‘restoration response,’ and we’ll expect to see this for five to six years now.”
The mouth of the Elwha isn’t the only part of the river where dramatic habitat changes are taking place.
Mike McHenry, a fisheries habitat biologist with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, strides across a newly revealed mudflat above the lower dam. It’s a place very few people have seen because it’s been underwater for 100 years. McHenry is about eight miles from the mouth of the Elwha. Not too long ago, this was a 250-acre reservoir known as Lake Aldwell. Now it’s a lifeless-looking mudflat with the Elwha flowing through it in braided, chocolatey channels. But McHenry says nature’s already bouncing back.
“There’s life here,” he says, bending down to brush the green leaves of a tiny thimbleberry shrub that’s fighting its way out of the sandy soil. “You can already see the early plant succession happening. We’ve seen pools that have amphibians in them already. A lot of insect activity. It’s not a moonscape it’s an early successional landscape and it’s just gonna get better.”
This newly-exposed mudflat won’t be brown for long. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe is working with the Olympic National Park to plant native trees and shrubs here. 66,000 trees have been planted and about 350,000 more will go in above both dams by the time the dam removal process is finished.
This area was cleared and logged 100 years ago – and then submerged when the dams went in. Now the giant ghostly stumps are visible once again, dotting the mudflats around McHenry. It’s a melancholy landscape – like something out of the Lorax. But McHenry sees new life taking hold here.
McHenry clambers up the side of one of the ghost stumps. It’s about 12 feet tall but there are toe-holds carved into it by the loggers that felled this tree so long ago. He rests his elbows on the surface of the stump, which is wider than a 8-person dining room table, and runs his fingers over the exposed tree rings –- tracing back over the trees growth history –- hundreds of years. He says someday there could be trees like this here again.
“You and I won’t be around to witness it, but hopefully our grandchildren and great grandchildren will be. So that’s a pretty exciting thought.”