Elwha River Dam Removal

Elwha River

I’ve got alot of catching up to do to this blog, so I’m going to condense down to two or three posts what I’ve been up to lately:

I was supposed to be sailing onboard my normal research vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson, accumulating more unlimited sea time, however the University of Washington asked if I would stay as the mate for several more trips on the Clifford A. Barnes as we had several important trips scheduled. They were having a hard time finding someone who was familiar with the ship. The license needed is very common at 100 tons, but the ship’s internal workings are a whole different level than the majority of 100 ton captains ever see. The boat has alot of systems more commonly seen on a ship and ship’s have engineers. With a crew of two (captain and mate), we get to spend time in the wheelhouse, running the crane and winches, cooking, and playing engineer. I was a deer in the headlights so to speak when I first entered the engine room on the Barnes, but have spent time working in there in between trips and getting to know her failry well. There is a bunch more to learn, but the basics are under control.

One of the cruises we did was a trip to the mouth of the Elwha River on the Olympic Pennisula of Washington State in the Straights of Juan De Fuca. The river was blocked by two dams years ago. The dams had outlived thier useful life and conditions on the Elwaha were perfect to take on a project like this. First off, most the Elwaha’s watershed lies within the boundries of Olympic National Park. Also the river dumps directly into the Straights of Juan De Fuca, allowing the sediment that runs off to be scattered by the strong tides. One of the biggest issues with the dams is all of the sediments collect behind the dam. In most of our NW rivers, if a dam were to be removed, the sediment would flush downstream and block streams and rivers or build up behind dams further downstream.

Our trip was with a group of scientits monitoring the mouth of the Elwaha and studying how the sediment flows are changing. Here are some photos of the new river mouth and the Elwha River Basin:



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The first part of the dam removal was started a year or two back and began sending the flows towards the estuary right away. This summer the last part of the last dam was removed. The beach at the mouth of the river has grown approx. 300′ and if there are any large floods over this coming winter should expand fairly raipidly. Our group was focused soley on the oceangraphy aspects, however there are also groups watching the biologly as well. For example the sediments have covered up some estabilshed kelp beds and driven out thier inhabitants to be replaced by different species such as clams. There were no plans for salmon to be stocked in the river and it was estimated that it may take four years for any to return. The very first year the first dam was removed, wild steelhead returned to the upper river and this year at least 4,000 wild salmon have returned to the lower river with at least some of those reaching the upper river.

The other part of our trip was to host some donors to the university who may help with the replacement for the Barnes as she is scheduled to be retired in a couple more years. She was also designed as an ice breaking inland harbor tug and not a good coastal boat at all unless conditions are very favorable.

As we departed Lake Union in Seattle we had to lock out through the Ballard Locks in thick fog:


The mouth of the Elwha River is a one hour run in the Barnes (also commonly refered to as Cliffy) to Port Angeles, WA. This port has a USCG Air Station (one of two serving the WA Coast. The other being located in Astoria, OR) and also is where incoming and outgoing ships must pick up or drop off thier Puget Sound Pilots. There is also a large log loading facility and many tankers anchor here while awaiting space or assignment to refineries further inland. We would return to Port Angeles each night and offload science equipment so it could be repaired and made ready for redeployment. We were also able to change members of the science party and pick up and drop off donors.

Our first objective upon arriving at the river mouth was to try and recover a tripod that was set on the seafloor months before. The tripod has several instuments that are continually recording currents, water conditions, etc. Much more detailed that I can relay to you with my limited knowledge of this stuff. I aways ask the science party obout them, but it quickly gets technical and I never remember what they told me. The first attempt to rever the tripod failed and the acoustic release failed to send the bouy with the retrival line to the surface. We finished the day using a “Ship X” witch is a little spring loaded contraption much like a bear trap that is lowered on the crane wire. When it touches bottom, it snaps shut and returns a sample of seafloor bottom so it can be studied in the lab upon return.

The Ship X: (how it got it’s name is unknown to me)



There are about 200 stations marked that have been sampled in the previous trips:

We returned to port and the next morning they brought another piece of equipment that was able to get the second acoustic release to trip and we were able to recover the tripod:


Since it is on the sea floor in shallow water it accumulates a whole bunch of growth that must be cleaned off. The instruments are removed one at a time and downloaded and then once on shore serviced and new batteries installed. Everything is then remounted and at the end of the trip the whole thing is redeployed again.

Part way through the week, we shifted to coring. The equipment used is called a box core and is lowered rather fast on the crane wire driving the box into the seafloor. As it is lifted the end shuts and they get a perfect core and then cut samples one inch deep for closer insection in the lab:








Among other things, they are looking for a particular isotope that falls in the rain and then is flushed out to se, settling on the seafloor. By tracking this they can tell alot about the flows of sediment.

Because we were coming in and out of Port Angeles each day, I took variouse pictures of the happenigs at the port. Some of the pictures are of shipping, the Lidsey Foss Tractor Tug, the Black Ball Ferry (Coho) which runs from Port Angeles to Victoria, the USCG Air Base, etc.:


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Here is some further information regarding the project:




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