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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

April 30, 2012 at 11:30 AM

Elwha sediment not just mud, it’s nourishment

The sediment loads in the Elwha River are spiking because the reservoir behind former Elwha Dam is now completely gone. That means the settling of fines that used to occur in the lake is no longer happening so all that material is pouring into the river, and heading on down to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s a dramatic sight. Check out these photos shot by Tom Roorda from his plane on April 22:

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The distinct line is caused by the difference in density between the fresh water of the Elwha and the salt water of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The heavy sediment loading is coming primarily from the area that used to be Elwha Dam. In this photo the Elwha River, right, meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The plume is flowing east with the tide — up, in this photograph, as Roorda flies north.

And while the amount of sediment is large — about 50 times normal levels for the Elwha — don’t call it mud. Sediment is a single word for a whole range of material that the river has been depositing behind the two dams for the past 100 years: rocks, gravel, cobble, sand, silt, and clay. About 40 percent of that material is expected to eventually make its way out to sea.



April 26, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Introducing Leopard and Silkie: West Seattle’s most famous seals

And now for something purely delightful: the children’s book, Leopard & Silkie, just out from Brenda Peterson with photographs by Robin Lindsey (Henry Holt, 2012) about the Seal Sitters quest to protect the eponymous baby seals right here in West Seattle.


Leopard and Silkie, just out from local author Brenda Peterson and photographer Robin Lindsey is a delightful and educational read for kids

The book is fabulously illustrated with Lindsey’s one of a kind photographs of baby seals Leopard and Silkie basking, yawning, snoozing, hanging out with their mom, and basically being cuter than you might think possible:


The local seal pups of the Salish Sea and the Seal Sitters’ work to protect them is the subject of a new children’s book

Kid Miles provides a role model for the adults on the beach, keeping curious humans and their pets away away from baby seals on the beach, as a Seal Sitter volunteer.

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Curious humans, from a baby seal’s point of view.



April 24, 2012 at 10:00 AM

On the Elwha, a lunar landscape emerges

Well here comes the landscape we’ll be living with on the Elwha. About 60 percent of the sediment trapped behind the dams will stay behind, in stepped down terraces of material that was trapped behind the dams. As of about a week ago, Lake Aldwell, behind Elwha Dam, was completely gone, following the completion of demolition of the dam in March.

Lake Mills is also disappearing, as Glines Canyon Dam comes down, with about one third of the dam already gone. It is expected to be history, too, by about this time next year. So what will remain? I took a walk around the landscape just upstream of former Elwha Dam over the weekend. It was a spectacular, otherworldly experience. Anyone with the slightest interest in photography ought to get out to have a look.


Stumps of trees cut when the reservoir was filled behind Elwha Dam wear sediment hats. The river, back in its channel, is carrying high sediment loads now that the reservoir behind Elwha Dam is gone. Fine particles that used to settle out in the reservoir are now mobilized in the water, and carried on down the river. The uniform ashy gray color created by the coating of silt on every surface, gives the landscape and eerie, lunar feel.


The sound of the river is back, where there used to be only a lake. Here the Elwha River rushes through what used to be Lake Aldwell. About 60 percent of the sediment trapped behind the dams — some 24 million cubic yards — is going to stay behind in the landscape, just as you see here. The rest will sluice out to sea. Nature, and an active revegetation effort directed by the National Park Service is hoped to green up the landscape in time.

The river below former Elwha Dam is carrying about 50 times more sediment than usual, according to Tim Randle at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who is directing the management of the sediment in the Elwha River restoration project. The spike is sediment is due to the disappearance of Lake Aldwell, which used to settle out some of the material that’s cut loose as the dams have been demolished. Most of the sediment in the river right now is coming from behind the former Elwha Dam. Much of what is coming out now is fine silt and clay.

Winter storms, and time are bound to keep sculpting the soft terraces of sediment left behind as the reservoirs drop. But much of what you see out in the former lake bed of Lake Aldwell is what we are going to get, as far as the appearance of the landscape. Try to imagine this view, greened up with trees and shrubs. It’s not that different from the views of say the terraced uplands at Goblins Gate, above the dams:


The goal of the Elwha restoration was to drop the reservoirs behind the dams gradually, so that the sediment trapped behind them would be eroded by the river. About 40 percent of the material — fines, sand, cobble, rocks, and gravel, will move downriver. The rest will stay behind. The hope was to leave a natural looking landscape behind, especially as plants regrow.



April 19, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Remembering Russ Busch: 1943-2012

Russ Busch, dedicated friend, father and lawyer, died peacefully at his North Seattle home on April 11. The cause was a brain tumor, which he had fought for the past several years. He was 68.

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Russ Busch has passed away at 68. He fought hard on several of the region’s longest running environmental battles, including taking the dams down on the Elwha River, and defeating the proposed Northern Tier Pipeline. Photo courtesy of Julie Busch

A tiger in any fight, he was adopted into the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, a high honor, for his long work representing the tribe in its fight to tear down the Elwha Dams — a victory he lived to see. Mr. Busch also worked hard to help the tribe through the crisis of the inadvertent discovery of its ancient village of Tse-whit-zen on the Port Angeles waterfront during a state construction project. Mr. Busch represented the tribe throughout its negotiations with the state, which ultimately stopped the project and found another place for its work.

“He was very blunt, he really could only say what he meant,” remembered his daughter Julie Busch of Seattle. “I learned from him not to care what people think, to really say what you mean. That is something he learned from the tribes, to say what you mean, and no more.”



April 19, 2012 at 7:55 AM

Here it comes: sediment starts to really hit the Elwha

Long expected, the heavy loads of sediment created primarily by demolition of Elwha Dam are starting to hit the river. Here’s a photo from the air of just how cloudy the river is with sediment lately: The Elwha River is brown with sediment as demolition continues on Elwha and Glines Canyon Dam. Together the…