by Andy Gregory
They say that change is the only constant in life. Nowhere is this more apparent than here, standing atop the site of the former Lower Elwha Dam, watching the river flow free after over 100 years. This story is decades in the making and though Soundkeeper wasn’t directly involved in the dam removal or river restoration, we are committed to the health of the Puget Sound and projects such as this are shining stars in a sometimes dark and cloudy sky.
As part of our ongoing project “12 Rivers in 12 Months” Soundkeeper staff, board members, volunteers, and partners spent the weekend of August 24th and 25th camped out on the Olympic Peninsula; exploring the newly restored river and learning everything we could from the experts that brought about this massive restoration project and have been monitoring the changes on the ground. We hiked the dried lake bed of the former Lake Aldwell site, observing layers upon layers of sediment deposits eroding for the first time as the river meanders through the flood plain attempting to re-establish its main channel. In places the sediment is stacked like mushroom caps on top of 100 year old tree stumps, proof that this was once a forest floor teeming with life. We explored the nearshore ecosystem, from the mouth of the river out through Freshwater Bay, an area that has been starved of sediment and is now undergoing major change as nearly 32 million cubic yards of sediment begin to flow out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, providing habitat for forage fish and other nearshore critters. We scaled slippery moss-covered rocks as we descended down to the river at the site of the Lower Elwha Dam and stood on the shore, watching the water bubble and froth and pool as it flows freely through the newly forming canyon.
Our guides on this adventure were a group of experts to whom the Elwha River is an intricate part of their lives. Their experience working and living on and around the Elwha proved invaluable in conveying the magnitude of the restoration project and the implications for the future of this complex social-ecological system.
Our Host and Recreational Expert was Morgan Colonel, owner of Olympic Raft and Kayak. His property near the confluence of Indian Creek and the Elwha River provided our basecamp and venue for the speakers’ forum. He and his knowledgeable guides brought us on several sea kayaking adventures through Freshwater Bay where we saw harbor seals, harbor porpoises, river otters, great blue herons, kingfishers, bald eagles, sea stars, pacific herring, sand lance, and anemones. Morgan also brought us down to the Lower Dam site and showed us a line through the new rapid that he and a team had pioneered in whitewater kayaks the day before.
Of all the experts that we spoke with, perhaps none has as deep a connection to the River as Robert Elofson, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal member and Director of River Restoration. He and his ancestors have lived on and fished this river for centuries and Robert has personally been working on the dam removal since the mid 1970’s. He has fought long and hard to see this river set free and is very proud of the work that has been done to restore the river. Robert emphasizes the deep spiritual and emotional connection that all of his people have with the River.
Scientific monitoring is a critical component of the post dam-removal phase of this restoration project and teams of scientists from the National Park Service, NOAA, USGS, several universities and non-profits have been studying the river (from its glacial headwaters to its terminus at the Strait) for years. NOAA Fisheries Biologist George Pess delivered a data-packed presentation showing the transport of sediment through the river as well as well as the early stages of salmon recovery. The Elwha is unique in that it is home to all 8 salmonid species, several of which are beginning to re-establish populations in the creeks and rivers above the Lower Dam site for the first time in over 100 years. We were also joined by Anne Shaffer, Nearshore Ecologist and ED of the Coastal Watershed Institute. She has been surveying marine life at the mouth of the Elwha since before dam removal and is starting to see changes in the populations and spawning locations for critical forage fish such as sand lance that form the base of the food web.
The constant theme throughout the weekend was change. Uncertainty is high in this region but so is hope for the future. Morgan Colonel has guided whitewater trips all over the West and has seen firsthand the result of restored wild rivers. George Pess has studied salmon populations in other restored river systems in the PNW and though he can’t predict the degree or the timetable of the salmon recovery, almost all other river systems have seen fish populations increase by 100-500% in the first 20 years after restoration. Although dikes and shoreline armoring still prohibit the freeflow of sediment in parts of the Elwha nearshore, Anne Shaffer is starting to see the recovery of a healthy ecosystem and the restoring of natural processes. And Robert Elofson takes great pride in the work that has been done and the newly restored river that will be passed on to future generations.