Spring Brings New Life To Washington's Recovering Elwha River

Jun 5, 2012

On the Olympic Peninsula the largest dam removal project in history is well underway. The Elwha River flows from the Olympic Mountains down to the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the mouth of Puget Sound. Ashley Ahearn reports that as the two dams come out, new life is coming into the Elwha River.

There haven’t been salmon in the upper Elwha for almost 100 years. But that’s changing.

Bennett: “There’s probably about 50 or more. See ‘em all right there?”

Virgil Bennett and Gabe Youngman are down on their knees peering into a fish trap in a side channel of the Elwha. They’re members of the Elwha Klallam Tribe and work on fish restoration.

Below them, tiny flickers of silver flash amongst the plant debris caught in the trap. The men sift through the debris, counting the fish they find.

Youngman: “5 Coho. There’s that one in here too, that little small one. See? There he is.”

These baby Coho salmon are on their way downriver to the open ocean. They are the first wave of what many hope will one day be robust runs of salmon in this river, now that the dams are being removed.

Virgil Bennett has high hopes for these little guys.

Bennett: “With all these high counts they’re gonna produce a lot more fish in the future. It’s pretty good to see them coming up on the river that they weren’t before, you know? It’s awesome.”

The total for today: 97 fish. But the men say there have been days when they’ve counted almost 200. After they’re counted the fish are released to continue their journey to the ocean. On their way out, they might pass by a rather odd site at the mouth of the river.

Andrew Stevens is an oceanographer with the US Geological Survey.

Stevens straps on a backpack full of scientific gear and starts walking along the rocky beach at the River’s mouth. In his hand he’s got a device that looks like your car GPS on steroids.

Stevens: “Basically I collect the elevation and horizontal position as I walk along. You walk many miles over the beach and form a map as I walk along.”

Over the past 100 years millions of cubic yards of sediment have collected above the dams. Now it’s moving downriver. Stevens is part of a team that is mapping where the sediment is ending up.

This is their first sampling trip since the dam removal began so Stevens says it’s too soon to say where the sediment’s going exactly, but this beach is already changing.

Stevens: “There’s a lot more mud and muddy stuff in the river itself. And a lot more sand, the fine grain material that just really wasn’t around is starting to show up.”

But don’t pack up your beach towel yet.

Stevens: “This is not a beach you’d want to get a tan on. There’s cobbles. Dam removal will definitely bring more sand down into the river for the coastline so maybe there will be tanning babes in the future.”

The dams prevented the river from delivering the dirt and sand that make for healthy coastal habitat for fish and shellfish. Instead, most of the sediment in the river got stuck above the dams so the clear water below basically just scoured the coastline, instead of supplementing it.

Shaffer: “This is a lunar landscape. It’s one of the most hostile nearshore environments anywhere because of the sediment starvation.”

Anne Shaffer is a biologist and executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute. The group has been doing a monthly census of the fish hanging out in the tiny sliver of good habitat left at the mouth of the river.

Ahearn: "Looks like a murky pond to me."

Shaffer: “That’s what we all thought but this little fragment that we’re looking at is the highest functioning area in the Elwha estuary right now.”

It’s a nurturing place for young coho, chinook, chum and steelhead. Shaffer says she was concerned about the rise in temperature and changing pH of the river since the dam removal began, but fish populations have held steady. In fact, things are already changing for the better.

Shaffer: “The main change has been the addition of these three species and the numbers in particular. The red-sided shiner, juvenile bull trout and juvenile steelhead. We’ve never had numbers like we’ve had this past month.”

The baby coho that Virgil Bennett and Gabe Youngman were counting upriver from here will eventually come to this lush sliver of habitat to bulk up before heading out to the open ocean.

By the time they come back in a few years, Shaffer says this will be a more welcoming environment for them. The mouth of this river will have more sediment – and maybe even some eelgrass – a prized habitat for young fish and other creatures. This river is coming back to life.

Shaffer: “I don’t think anybody can articulate the size of this restoration and the excitement that all of us feel. This started 6 months ago and it still just makes you cry. It’s really a crescendo I’m just so pleased about and it’s all about the sediment. So, pretty cool.”

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio