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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 21, 2011 at 4:00 PM

What lurks beneath… Lakes Aldwell and Mills

So what does a reservoir leave behind after it drains away? Lake Mills and Aldwell are being drawn down in preparation for removing Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River.

Elwha water.JPG

Elwha dam is exploding with whitewater, a combination of water drawn down from the reservoirs, and snowmelt from a gigantic snowpack.

Lynda Mapes photo

Wow. Rocks I stood on last summer, watching giant chinook salmon schooled at the base of the dam, were obliterated from view, lost in all the whitewater.

As the lakes drop, a new landscape is beginning to emerge. I walked the delta above Elwha Dam with scientists this week for a story about how the landscape is transforming. Part of the fun, in addition to seeing the amazing amount of change already underway, was seeing what the reservoirs left behind on their way out.

Brian Cluer, a fluvial geomorphologist (love that title) at NOAA fisheries, found the jawbone of a beaver, with its big fat incisor. Tim Randle of the Bureau of Reclamation found a woman’s shoe, which looked distinctly to be from another era. I found an old can of Sprite, with a very ’50s-looking logo, from the era when the bottoms of the cans were flat, not rounded.

And so many animal tracks, showing in the soft sediments. It’s easy sometimes to forget this isn’t just a river restoration project, but a watershed project. As the river begins to take shape, already animals are checking out the emerging shoreline: raccoons, elk and herons all had left telltale tracks. It’s hoped that once restoration is underway, not just salmon, but the whole suite of life they feed and the land itself will be nourished again.

Cluer said he remembered being camped up in the upper watershed during one of his trips for the agency to the river, and seeing a black bear head to the river, full of purpose, only to head away looking disappointed: no salmon, again. “That bear looked sad,” Cluer said.

Maybe someday, that bear, and many others, will be fed by the Elwha once more as salmon return to the upper watershed, where they have been gone for a century. Cluer said that is part of what he’s hoping for in the project.

It’s already exciting to hear the river sing where it has been silent for a century, as the lakes drop and the river emerges. For more, read my upcoming story in The Seattle Times, where photographer Steve Ringman’s photos will give you a sense of the big changes underway.

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