Tag Archives: Lake Aldwell

Tours will help people understand Elwha restoration

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

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.

Elwha Dam: Keeping an eye on sediment flows

Removal of the Elwha Dam and drawdown of Lake Aldwell behind it have gone faster than originally planned, and now the story of the Elwha River restoration becomes a story of erosion. Experts are watching the sediment movement very closely.

Taken today, this photo shows the sediment once impounded by the Elwha Dam but now free to move. The drawdown is on hold to allow the river to redistribute the sediment.
Elwha Dam cam, Natonal Park Service

The Elwha Dam has been entirely removed down to the river bed (see photos below), and the river is now flowing in its original channel, where it will remain. The river is being held back mainly by a “check dam” of boulders. At the moment, the drawdown has been halted at 133 feet elevation for a scheduled two-week holding period.

Andy Ritchie, restoration project hydrologist with Olympic National Park, says the pause in drawdown will allow the river to snake around to redistribute the sediment more evenly across the valley. The final target elevation for the river bed is 100 feet.

Drawdown of Lake Mills, behind the upper Glines Canyon Dam, also is on hold at the moment. Even more sediment is trapped behind that dam. While project managers have largely lost control over the movement of sediment behind the lower dam, the upper dam remains intact enough to control migration of sediment from farther up the canyon.

As the weather improves this spring (or at least we can hope), it may be time for many of us to visit the former lake beds at the two dams. We can walk out onto the deltas and see the new vegetation starting to grow. Lake Aldwell’s delta can be reached from the old boat launch. For Lake Mills, take Whiskey Bend Road, which has been reopened, and you will come to Humes Ranch trailhead with access from there.

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Glines Canyon Dam shows off its new notches

“Deconstruction” of Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River appears to be progressing rapidly. A fourth notch in the dam was completed yesterday, and water is now pouring through all four of the gaps.

Alan Durning of Sightline Institute (blog) pieced together the video, at right, from still photos taken by a remote webcam at the dam. Check out the cameras on the Elwha River Restoration Project webpage.

Work will continue on the removal of both Elwha and Glines Canyon dam until the end of this month, when a “fish window” will shut down operations on the water. Work will shift to demolition of penstocks, powerhouses and other structures — work that will not release sediment into the river, according to the Elwha Blog provided by Olympic National Park. Construction in the water can resume at the end of the year.

At the Elwha Dam, contractors are blasting away to remove the left spillway foundation down into bedrock to form the downstream end of a diversion channel. The diversion channel is scheduled to be put into operation the week of Oct. 17, when the river will flow through the channel at an increased rate, drawing down Lake Aldwell.

Elwha Dam / Olympic National Park webcam