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Celebrating freedom for the Elwha River

Monday, September 1st, 2014

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Elwha Prigge

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I want to recognize the Kitsap Sun’s editorial cartoonist Milt Priggee for capturing the feeling of the moment last week when the final piece of a dam on the Elwha River was blown up. See Water Ways, Aug. 27, 2014.

The video below was recorded on that same day by Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed Institute while snorkeling in a kelp bed in western Freshwater Bay, not far from where the Elwha River flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Watching this video and the large number of herring gives me a feeling of optimism, although I recognize there is no scientific basis for this. Someone please tell me the herring are doing better.

“We couldn’t think of a better place to be the day the last dam went down,” Anne said in an email to members of her listserv.

The Coastal Watershed Institute has been monitoring the nearshore area, where the Elwha River has been dramatically transforming the delta. Sediment, unleashed by dam removal, pours out of the Elwha and builds up in the estuary.

Tom Roorda, an aerial photographer, has been documenting the transformation with thousands of pictures he has taken over the past several years.

Tom Roorda of Roorda Aerial photography captured this image showing the ongoing buildup of sediment at the mouth of the Elwha River. Photo by Tom Roorda

Tom Roorda of Roorda Aerial photography captured this image showing the ongoing buildup of sediment at the mouth of the Elwha River. // Photo by Tom Roorda


Final explosion frees Elwha River at Glines Canyon

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

I believe it is important to commemorate the final day of the Glines Canyon Dam — even though only a relatively small chunk of the structure had been left in place since February, when flows in the Elwha River covered over the last 30 feet.

In a massive explosion on Tuesday, that last 30 feet of concrete was blasted away. Almost immediately, the river began to flow freely, at basically the same elevation it was before the dam was built in the 1920s.

The video above was shot by John Gussman, who has done an amazing job documenting the restoration of the natural river. See John’s Facebook page and check out a preview of the film “Return of the River.”

Olympic National Park officials say it will take several weeks to clear away the rubble dislodged by the final blast, but dramatic changes have been taking place downstream of the former Glines Canyon Dam — the second dam on the river, built eight miles upstream of the Elwha Dam.

Researchers are carefully monitoring sediment distribution and salmon migration, officials say. During the past three years, the Elwha River has experienced unusually low flows, so experts are waiting for more typical winter flows to move around some of the larger boulders in the stream.

Since last fall, salmon have been swimming upstream of the Elwha Dam site. The dam, built without a fish ladder, blocked salmon migration into some 70 miles of near-pristine habitat. Now, biologists expect all five species of Northwest salmon to recolonize the river.

In a story in today’s Peninsula Daily News, reporter Arwyn Rice quoted Robert Ellefson, restoration manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe: “It’s a good day… It has been the dream of tribal members for a hundred years.”

The tribe will have something special to celebrate come next July, when members hold their annual welcoming ceremony, acknowledging the return of chinook salmon to the Elwha River.


Amusing Monday: Raise the river or move the ocean?

Monday, March 17th, 2014

A feigned controversy involving Robert Redford and Will Ferrell is bringing some light-hearted attention to a serious effort to restore the Colorado River delta.

In a series of videos released last week, Redford reaches out for public help to restore the delta where the Colorado River once flowed into the Gulf of California. The new campaign, called “Raise the River,” is based on buying up old water rights and putting the water into the river.

“So please,” Redford says, “will you join me at ‘raisetheriver.org’ and find out how you can get involved?”

William Ferrell doesn’t buy idea, and he mocks Redford’s approach:

“We got ol’ Sundance ridin’ around, trying to raise the Colorado River and restore its flow,” Farrell says. “I say, ‘Do we really need more river?’ I mean, hell, we got plenty of ocean. Let’s move it… The way to fix this thing is to send money, so myself and some other scientists can begin the process of moving a small portion of the ocean back toward the wet part of the river.”

As you can see from the video on this page, Redford maintains his serious posture throughout the back-and-forth banter, while Farrell seemingly tries to provoke him.

I believe these videos fully qualify as an “Amusing Monday” post, but I can’t avoid touching on the more complete story, which goes beyond fun and games. As Jill Tidman, executive director of the Redford Center, stated in a news release:

“We saw this idea of a fictitious debate between Mr. Redford and Mr. Ferrell as a novel way to generate greater awareness of the very serious issues facing the Colorado River. Bringing a sense of humor to the effort opens the door for a much greater audience and offers everyone a chance to be part of winning this campaign—and this is one we are going to win.”

The media campaign, developed by the ad firm Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners of Sausalito, Calif., will roll out new videos with Redford and Ferrell through April. A related event is planned for television on March 22 — World Water Day — when “The History of Water” premieres on PIVOT TV. That’s channel 197 on Dish and 267 on Direct TV. PIVOT is not listed for the local cable outlets in Kitsap County.

Campaign supporters are excited about an event starting on March 23, when the United States and Mexico will release about 105,000 acre-feet of water into the Colorado River below the Morelos Dam on the U.S. Mexican border. An initial high flow for several days will be followed by a lower flow for nearly eight weeks.

Francisco Zamora Arroyo, director of the Colorado River Delta Legacy Program at Sonoran Institute, stated in a news release:

“The pulse flow is a vital part of our ongoing restoration efforts. We know that relatively small amounts of water can make a big difference in the health of the delta region.”

In a brochure, “Raise the River” (PDF 1.4 mb), organizers report that this flow, which is less than 1 percent of the river’s annual average flow, will begin to restore the wetland forests and marshes of the delta.

The goal is to raise $10 million to restore 2,300 acres by 2017. To restore an acre of delta, it takes about 8 acre-feet of water flowing in the river, according to the brochure, and it costs about $450 to buy an acre-foot from the holders of existing water rights. By conserving water, residents, farmers and other water users can maintain their activities while contributing to the restoration of this unique ecosystem.

Other sources of information:

Raise the River Facebook page

Save the Colorado

I’m just beginning to learn about this exciting project. Others with personal connections to the Colorado River should feel free to share their thoughts below.


Tours will help people understand Elwha restoration

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Guided tours of the empty reservoir behind Elwha Dam near Port Angeles will be offered on Saturdays beginning Aug. 3 and continuing through Sept. 7.

The Elwha River flows through what had been the Lake Aldwell reservoir, fully drained after removal of the Elwha Dam.

The Elwha River flows through what had been the Lake Aldwell reservoir, fully drained after removal of the Elwha Dam.
Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

Rangers from Olympic National Park will lead the tours and talk about the massive dam-removal project. This will be a wonderful service for visitors who wish to get up close and understand one of the largest ecosystem-restoration projects in the world.

Instead of wandering aimlessly in what many would consider a wasteland, visitors will gain an appreciation for the shifting and eroding sediments and understand how the gravel is moving as the river reclaims its channel. They will view newly established vegetation and hear what it takes to restore native species to the area. They will stand alongside the mighty stumps of old-growth trees buried within the lakebed until the sediments began washing away.

The hour-long walks will begin at 1 p.m., leaving from the boat launch at the end of Lake Aldwell Road. Turn off Highway 101 just west of the Elwha River Bridge. Explorers should wear boots or sturdy walking shoes and plan for windy conditions with no shade. For information, contact the Elwha Ranger Station, (360) 452-9191.

Earlier this year, I wrote a story for visitors interested in the Elwha restoration. Given that the tours of Lake Aldwell will last about an hour, you may wish to visit some of the other viewpoints while you’re there. See “Visiting the Elwha: Explore a River Transformed.” Also, check out a few of my observations in Water Ways, April 30, 2013.

Meanwhile, officials at Olympic National Park posted a new entry to the Dam Removal Blog yesterday. It describes how aerial surveys are being used to measure changes in the sediments during this period of low flows on the river. The entry also discusses the revegetation effort, pointing out that sediments along the river are drying out faster this year than last.

Elwha River visitors guide


Here’s my guide for visiting the Elwha area

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

When my editor, Kim Rubenstein, asked me to write a story for people who wish to check out the Elwha River restoration, it seemed like a good idea. After playing the role of tourist for a day, I’m convinced that many visitors will have a good time learning about this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Looking upstream where the Elwha River flows into an empty Lake Mills, the upper reservoir. Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

Looking upstream where the Elwha River flows into an empty Lake Mills, the upper reservoir. / Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

I wrote a story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun that describes where you can go to see the river and various features of the restoration project. The area map we created for the newspaper can be downloaded and taken with you. Click here for map (PDF 438 kb).

Learning about the natural features of the Elwha River watershed is an important part of the experience. Before you leave home, I recommend that you view a series of “webisodes” on the Olympic National Park website. I’m told these videos by Wings Over Watersheds are a sampling of what will eventually become a longer video production.

A more complete story about the Elwha Restoration Project, including a history of the two dams, has been captured in a new book by Seattle Times reporter Linda Mapes. I wrote a review of her book, “Elwha: A River Reborn,” to accompany my visitor’s guide to the area.

I think kids and adults alike will enjoy playing around with a model of Glines Canyon at Feiro Marine Life Center, where one can pull out the dam and watch the sediment move downstream.

Randall Walz, director of education and volunteers at the center, told me about misconceptions that some people have. Many believe that the sediment in the Elwha moved downstream and piled up behind the dams, he said. Instead, most of the sediment was dropped off in the upper portion of the two reservoirs, where the water slowed down as it entered the lakes.

The restoration work included digging a pilot channel through the Lake Mills delta to form a new channel and guide the river through the trapped sediment. The goal is not to move the sediment downstream as quickly as possible, Walz said, but rather to stabilize the deltas and allow them to erode over a longer period of time.

If you want to see change, be sure to visit the mouth of the Elwha River, which you reach from a dike trail at the end of Place Road. Wherever you see sand, that’s change, because there was no sand here before, said Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed Institute.

The sandy habitat will better support the migration of juvenile salmon and provide spawning areas for sandlance, a forage fish. The decline of the rocky habitat could mean the end of tall kelp, but researchers hope the new sandy habitat will support the growth of eelgrass and a burgeoning community of diverse plants and animals. Check out the story I wrote in March, following a conference on the nearshore changes taking place.

I have to say there’s not a lot of excitement to behold in the upper portions of the two reservoirs unless you remember what it was like when the lakes were in place or can visualize the enormity of the change. The river now carves its way through a dry lake bed, where one can see large old-growth stumps, which were either under water or buried by sediment. Plants are coming back, some placed there by restoration workers, others by natural processes.

With or without the dams, one can enjoy the escape into this natural area, particularly as one moves into the higher trails in Olympic National Park. Be sure to take time to enjoy the natural surroundings, even if you need to cut out parts of your planned trip.

If you want to observe the changes over time, I suggest you find a vantage point and take a picture during your visit. When you return the next time, take another picture for comparison. The heavy gravel and silt seems fairly inhospitable at the moment. But if you return again and again, I expect you’ll be amazed at the transformation taking place over the next few years.


Deadline to fix culverts that block salmon: 17 years

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

UPDATE, MAY 29, 2013
State officials have decided to appeal the Martinez decision, according to a statement from Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office. (See Associated Press story.)

“The state remains committed to doing more to address fish passage barriers and will continue to do so as resources permit,” Ferguson said in the statement. “The implications of the case, however, stretch beyond culverts. Issues of this magnitude deserve full and thoughtful appellate review.”
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The long-, long-, long-awaited court ruling in the so-called culvert case has finally been issued. The bottom line is that the Washington Department of Transportation has been given 17 years to upgrade all state culverts to accepted standards to allow fish passage.

That’s basically what 21 Western Washington tribes asked for when they proposed a court order three years ago. Actually, the tribes asked for 20 years, but Judge Ricardo Martinez subtracted the three years that they waited for a final decision in the case, first filed in 2001. See my latest story in Saturday’s Kitsap Sun, or review the history in an article published in January.

How much effect this case will have on the state budget is hard to say. The state will likely appeal, because there’s so much at stake — including the tribes’ authority to affect how the state spends its money. As I see it, under Martinez’ ruling, treaty obligations are not much different than the constitutional obligations the state has to provide “basic education.” And we all have seen how the governor and Legislature are looking under rocks to find money for that purpose.

One estimate of the cost of fixing all the culverts is $1.9 billion, but that’s assuming the state has a complete inventory. It could be more. Martinez wants to see a complete inventory within six months. People concerned about salmon will probably make sure their least-favorite state culverts are on the list.

The latest “Fish Passage Barrier Inventory” (PDF 5 mb), completed last July, identifies about 1,500 culverts that block significant upstream habitat. That inventory and other information can be found on WDOT’s website “Fish Passage.”

If you’d like to read Martinez’ ruling — which includes information on the treaties, salmon habitat needs and culvert history — download the decision (PDF 111 kb) here and the injunction (PDF 45 kb) here.

Through all these years, WDOT has not been ignoring the problem. As I have reported, the state has been upgrading culverts while doing major road repairs and also increasing the budget for stand-alone culvert replacement.

But at the current pace, it could take between 50 and 75 years to get all the work done, maybe more. These are just guesses provided to me, based on the average cost of repairs, but every culvert is different.

Near the upper end of the scale, replacement of a culvert that carries Chico Creek under Highway 3 is estimated to cost between $20 million and $30 million alone. The project will require several bridges for the four-lane freeway north of Bremerton plus on- and off- ramps in that location.

State officials are very aware of this Chico Creek culvert, which lies at the mouth of what has been called the Kitsap Peninsula’s most productive salmon stream. Salmon are getting through the culvert, but it’s a struggle. The culvert is considered a high priority by all, but replacement will probably take a special appropriation from Congress or the Legislature, or both.

As I watch our state highways deteriorate, I keep thinking back to the 1960s and early ‘70s when Washington had some of the best roads in the country. It was a pleasure to drive back then, if my memory isn’t faulty. Although money is needed to repair roads today, I think a good argument can be made that salmon were here first and should have been considered when the roads were built. Failing that, many people consider it essential to make things right now.

I should point out that the ruling does not immediately affect county roads or other projects that block the passage of salmon or affect salmon habitat. However, for better or worse, the legal principles established by the 1974 Boldt decision and reinforced by this culvert case could open the door to other types of court-ordered repairs to salmon habitat.


Elwha River transformation comes swiftly

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Changes are coming rapidly to the Elwha River, as massive amounts of sediment shift around in the river channel and flow out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Phoebe Tyson, a Student Conservation Association intern, joins in planting efforts in the former Lake Mills to help restore a natural forest. Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park

Phoebe Tyson, a Student Conservation Association intern, joins in planting efforts in the former Lake Mills to help restore a natural forest. / Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park

Over the past few months, researchers have documented the formation of new beaches and the growth of the delta at the mouth of the Elwha. I described these latest changes in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The new information came out of an annual workshop of the Elwha Nearshore Consortium, which has a special interest in the river, especially its effects on the coastal reaches along the strait.

It’s exciting to hear about the transformation of the river, and I would like to congratulate the scientists for the monitoring work that allows us to talk about “before” and “after” dam removal — although the “after” part will be an ongoing story for decades. Many research organizations are involved in the Elwha, and I hope their funding holds out to tell a more complete story from a scientific perspective.

Meanwhile, many writers, photographers and videographers are telling their own stories about the restoration in various ways, and new books and documentaries are on the way. I’ve talked about some of these in the past and will continue to do so as new works are released.

The human connections to the river, particularly those of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, have been widely recognized as an integral part of the restoration story. Many Klallam elders have been gracious in sharing their culture and traditions.

Although the Elwha Dam removal is far from the only restoration effort taking place in Western Washington, it may be the one place where nature is working at an extraordinary pace to put things back the way they were.


Killer whales: Learning from the experts

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

If you missed Orca Network’s “Ways of Whales Workshop” on Jan. 26, you can still learn a lot from the videos recorded at the workshop on Whidbey Island.

Toxic chemicals in the environment constitute one of the great threats to killer whales, which are among the most polluted animals in the world. Toxicologist Peter Ross of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans always does a great job in explaining the problem in simple terms and putting the issue into its full context.

Peter’s talk, shown in the video on this page, includes current topics, such as oil transport into the Salish Sea and other potential toxic threats. He provides a good history and background on the topic up until 30 minutes into his talk, when he begins to focus strongly on the issue of toxic chemicals and ways to address the problem.

The video cuts off at about 52 minutes, but Peter’s talk continues in a second video. Here’s the YouTube link to Part 2.

The other presentations at the “Ways of Whales Workshop” contain a ton of interesting information. Orca Network has been generous to post links to each of the talks on a single page on the Orca Network website.


‘Ways of Whales Workshop’ to feature new info

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Orca Network’s annual “Ways of Whales Workshop” on Whidbey Island Saturday has lined up some great speakers this year.

The cost of the daylong workshop is $30, or $25 for students and seniors. If you register right away, you can buy lunch for an extra $10. Visit the website for registration and additional information.

Peter Ross, a researcher with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, will discuss toxic pollution and whales in a talk titled, “Of Whales and Men: Ocean Pollution in the 21st Century.” Peter is a leading researcher in the effort to determine why killer whales in the Northwest are among the most contaminated mammals in the world.

Other speakers include Don Noviello of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who will discuss plans to protect marine mammals from the threat of an oil spill; John Gussman and Jessica Plumb, who are documenting in film and photos the restoration of the Elwha River; Steve Mashuda, an attorney for Earthjustice who will review legal attempts to remove the Southern Resident killer whales from the Endangered Species Act; and Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who will present a theory about why male orcas stay with their mothers for life.

Sustainable Cinema Series

Another event worth noting is the film “The Pacific Rim: Americas” about the dynamic geology of the West Coast.

The film will be shown Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Dragonfly Cinema in Port Orchard. Jim Bolger of the Puget Sound Partnership will lead a discussion during the event. A $5 donation is suggested. See Kitsap County’s news release for details.

The film is being shown as part of the Sustainable Cinema Series, sponsored by Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who hopes the films will stimulate discussion about environmental issues.


Blasts punctuate anniversary of Elwha Dam project

Friday, September 21st, 2012

The folks at Olympic National Park who keep us informed about the Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration Project could not have described it better: “It has been an explosive week at Glines Canyon Dam,” they said in their “Dam Removal Blog.”

Blasting this week at Glines Canyon Dam. Click on image to start video.
Video courtesy of Olympic National Park

The “salmon window,” designed to protect migrating fish, has now closed, allowing work in the river to begin again. This week, four big blasts blew out large sections of the dam on Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, as the reservoir level dropped from 489 to 476 feet, according to the blog. Click on the image to start the video of the blasting.

After an upcoming blast on Sunday, a 14-day waiting period will begin to allow the river to erode laterally.

The remote cameras at both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams are useful for observing environmental and structural changes in the areas around the two dams. An unexpected use came into play Thursday, when an average person looking at the Elwha Dam webcam noticed a fire burning at the edge of the picture.

Someone noticed a fire on the Elwha Dam webcam and was able to call in firefighters before it got out of hand.
Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park

Firefighters from Clallam County, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and Olympic National Park were able to extinguish the blaze before it could burn more than half an acre. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Read the news release about fire danger in the national park.

Click on image for video showing the first year of Elwha River restoration work.
Video courtesy of Olympic National Park

It’s worth noting that we have just passed the first anniversary of the start of dam removal. The Elwha Dam is gone and most site work is complete. Glines Canyon Dam is about 60 percent removed. And salmon have been observed swimming upstream of the Elwha Dam. Click on the image (lower right) to start the video, which shows what has happened over the past year.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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