On the Olympic Peninsula the largest dam removal project in history is well underway, and the Elwha River is starting to show signs of life not seen here for nearly a century.
The Elwha flows from the Olympic Mountains down to the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the mouth of Puget Sound.
There haven’t been salmon in the upper Elwha for almost 100 years. But that’s changing.
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.
“There’s probably about 50 or more. See ‘em all right there?” Bennett points into the holding chamber of the fish trap below him.
Tiny flickers of silver flash amongst the plant debris caught in the trap.
The men brandish green nets and start to fish the salmon smolts out, one by one.
“There’s that one in here too, that little small one,” Youngman says, “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.
The total for today: 97 fish. But the men say there have been days when they’ve counted almost 200.
Virgil Bennett has high hopes for these little guys. “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.”
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.
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey are mapping the nearshore environment where the Elwha’s freshwater meets the saltwater tides. To do this they’re walking transects, back and forth across the beach, from high elevation to low.
In the water, they’re slowly riding jet skis back and forth, from shallow water, to deeper water, using GPS and Echosounder technology — think car navigation system crossed with a fish-finder. They’re mapping how the depth of the coastal waters is changing as more sediment makes its way down river from where it was trapped above the dams.
Andrew Stevens, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, is one of the lucky scientists who gets to walk miles of beach with a knapsack full of scientific gear strapped on his back.
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 preliminary results show that even though it’s just been a few months since removal of the lower dam began, sediment is accumulating in the nearshore at levels three to four times those prior to dam removal.
“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 struggles to find footing as he traverses piles of soft-ball sized rocks, making his way past racks of woody debris, stumps and beach grass.
“This is not a beach you’d want to get a tan on,” he says. “There’s cobbles. Dam removal will definitely bring more sand down into the river for the coastline.”
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.
“This is a lunar landscape,” says Anne Shaffer, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute. “It’s one of the most hostile nearshore environments anywhere because of the sediment starvation.”
Shaffer is standing in front of a small murky-looking pond where her group has been conducting a monthly census of the fish hanging out in this tiny sliver of good habitat left at the mouth of the river.
“This little fragment that we’re looking at is the highest functioning area in the Elwha estuary right now,” she says. But you can hear the optimism in her voice.
Small though it is, this spot is a critical hideout and nurturing place for juvenile 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.
“The main change has been the addition of three species: 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.
“I don’t think anybody can articulate the size of this restoration and the excitement that all of us feel,” Shaffer says. “This started six 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.”
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