Recently, Parametrix employee-owner, Julie Brandt, PE, went on a pilgrimage that she had been wanting for 5 years: she hiked the Elwha. Read about the surface water engineer’s experience and perspective while exploring the breathtaking and inspiring Elwha watershed.
The Elwha watershed is the largest in the Olympic National Park and encompasses over 75 miles of migratory fish habitat. As a surface water engineer, this gets me pretty excited. The beaches and river banks of the Elwha were settled thousands of years ago by the Strong People or “nəxʷsƛ̕áy̕əm” [pronounced “Klallam”], who relied almost entirely on the river’s local salmon populations for their livelihood. In the early 1900’s estate developer Thomas T. Aldwell bought up a large portion of the river-front property to produce and distribute electricity to customers in the region, specifically, the large paper mill in Port Angeles. In 1914, he finished construction (permitting was a much different process in those days) of the 105 foot Elwha Dam. By 1927, Aldwell finished the 210 foot Glines Canyon hydroelectric dam eight miles upriver from the Elwha Dam.
The dams were a wall between the salmon and their home watershed. Much like a particular valley will produce a unique flavor of wine, river valleys produce a unique flavor of water. Salmon can smell their basin’s water, which is why they return year after year – they must go home. But after millions of years of evolution, now all they could do was crowd around the mouth of the river at the base of the Elwha Dam, without proper room for their eggs or fry to flourish, and they began to die out.
There were years of struggle, defense, conflict, sadness, tribal protests, unemployment, and lots and lots of arguing. Finally, in 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act ordering “full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and native anadromous fisheries.” Preparation for the dam removals took years. Taking down the dams themselves took years.
And then… on April 23rd, 2012, the last of the Elwha Dam was gone. Two years later, on August 26, 2014, the last of the Glines Canyon Dam was taken out, eliminating the final barrier between returning salmon and the entire 75 miles of their Elwha River watershed birthright.
Since that time, crews from both the Elwha Klallam Tribe and the National Park Service have been in the process of planting about 400,000 seedlings in the bare sediment floor of the former lakes. Hundreds of large woody debris logs have been airlifted in by helicopter. Birds, frogs, river otters, and deer took no delay in moving in. In late summer 2013, the largest run of Chinook salmon in the river since 1992 made it upstream of the former Elwha Dam site for the first time in 100 years, where biologists mapped over 600 redds (nests). The river has washed out 2 campgrounds, and deposited millions of cubic yards of trapped sediment at its mouth to create new marine estuary habitat. Major structural adjustments continue, among which is a replacement of the US 101 bridge across the Elwha that Parametrix is helping WSDOT permit and design to accommodate the new river hydraulics.
The work and learning may likely go on for years, and is mind-boggling. As Senator Bill Bradley stated: “It may be difficult to conceive of the inspirational power of what you have done. The Elwha is a template for success on climate change, energy policy, and countless other issues. It will be the great gift of the Elwha: HOPE.”
It’s the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, and it’s right here in our backyard (for my fellow Western Washingtonians). Go see it. If you can’t hike it, you can drive right up to the Glines Canyon overlook and see what a positive future looks like.
Sources and Additional Information:
Exploring the Elwha River Restoration by the Juan de Fuca Scenic Byway Association
Return of the River Documentary
National Park Service Project Site
About the Author
Julie Brandt, PE is a surface water engineer at Parametrix, an engineering, planning, and environmental services firm. She is based out of the firm’s Seattle, WA office. Julie is experienced in environmental consulting and regulatory enforcement, specializing in hydrologic and hydraulic modeling, Low Impact Development (LID)/green stormwater infrastructure applications, environmental impact assessments, and NPDES permit compliance assistance.
Julie's experience includes support for stream and wetland restoration, fish passage analysis, flood plain analyses, transportation improvements, municipal stormwater planning, industrial water quality treatment, and hazardous material spill control management.
Prior to joining Parametrix, Julie was a site inspector and enforcement agent for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.