It has always been a question to ponder: Will the most significant changes to the Elwha River ecosystem occur upstream of where two dams have been removed or downstream where the river enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca?
Soon after each dam was torn down in succession — the lower one first — salmon began migrating upstream, while more than 30 million cubic yards of sediment began moving downstream.
It could take a number of years to rebuild the extensive runs of salmon, including the prized chinook for which the Elwha was famous among salmon fishermen across the country. Will we ever see the legendary 100-pound chinook return to the Elwha, assuming they ever existed? That was a question I explored in a story for the Kitsap Sun in September 2010.
On the other hand, massive amounts of sediment have already spilled out of the Elwha River, building an extensive delta of sand and gravel, including about 80 acres of new habitat and two miles of sandy beach.
Reporter Tristan Baurick focused on the dramatic shoreline changes already taking place at the mouth of the Elwha in a well-written story published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.
The Coastal Watershed Institute, which is monitoring the shoreline near the mouth of the Elwha has documented increases in critical forage fish populations, including surf smelt, sand lance, eulachon (candlefish) and longfin smelt. See CWI Blog. These fish feed a host of larger fish, birds and marine mammals.
Tristan describes the changes offshore, where an area starved of sediment is turning into prime habitat for starry flounder, Dungeness crab and many other animals. Rocky outcroppings that once provided attachment for bull kelp is giving way to fine sand, which allows for colonization by eelgrass and a host of connected species. I described some of the early changes in the flora in a Kitsap Sun story in March of 2013.
For people to view the restoration first-hand, I described a day trip to the Elwha in a Kitsap Sun story in April of 2013. Along the way, you can check out the history, enjoy the vantage points and learn about the changes taking place. Tristan offers a suggestion worth heeding to ensure ongoing beach access.
“Access to the beach is granted by the dike’s owners. They could take that away if the area’s overwhelmed with trash, noise and other nuisances, so keep that in mind when you visit.”
If you’d like to see a video record of dam removal and ecosystem recovery, you may wish to view the film “Return of the River” to be shown at Bremerton’s Admiral Theatre on Friday, March 13. The film will be followed by a panel discussion involving the film’s producers, John Gussman and Jessica Plumb. For details, check the Kitsap Sun website.