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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

October 29, 2012 at 2:00 PM

“She’s all river now”: No more reservoirs on the Elwha

With a big shot of dynamite, the last of Lake Mills drained through what’s left of Glines Canyon Dam last week. There’s still about 50 feet of the Glines Canyon Dam standing. But the last of the once 210-foot-tall structure will be gone by May.

Today the river crashes over what’s left of the dam in a waterfall. And while there is still a mixture of water and sediment that can’t get past the remaining concrete yet, there are no more reservoirs on the Elwha. “She’s all river now,” Andy Ritchie, restoration hydrologist for the National Park Service said with a big smile.

Lake Aldwell, the former reservoir above Elwha Dam, disappeared last March, along with that dam.

The pace and scope of change has been breathtaking, as this amazing pairing of aerial photos by photographer John Gussman shows. Gussman is making a documentary film about the Elwha. He got started before dam removal began, and his comprehensive documentation of the river, the dams, and the watershed as the world’s largest dam removal ever unfolds is invaluable. To see more of his work, check his website.

Here is a heck of a before and after for you:


Glines Canyon Dam and Lake Mills, before and after.

John Gussman, photos

Now that the reservoir is drained, the river has been pushing sediment trapped behind the dam — piled up steadily since it was built in 1926 — down toward what is left of the dam. By now it covers the whole valley floor, Ritchie estimates, in a layer as much as 50 feet thick. The amount and size of material the river is about to spit downriver as winter storms unleash is unlike anything we have seen on the Elwha so far during the dam removal project. Or probably unlike anything ever seen on the Elwha, Ritchie notes.


The Elwha River in free fall over what’s left of Glines Canyon Dam. When the big storms come, the free flowing river is going to cut lots of impounded sediment loose. The rate at which the rest of the dam is taken down will provide some control over the process.

Photo by John Gussman

In a trip to the Elwha Valley to report a story last week, my colleague photographer Steve Ringman and I were amazed to see how much sediment is in the water. Ritchie took us to the bridge to the Altair Campground where the Elwha pools in a back eddy. The water looked viscous, it was so thick with sediment. “It even sounds different,” Ritchie said, and it was true. Like watching a lava lamp, the water boiled with ever-changing swirls and clouds of sediment.

Elwha silt small.jpg

The Elwha is carrying about 100 times more sediment than normal as the material behind Glines Canyon Dam starts to cut loose. The water looks more like churning mud than water…because that is what it virtually what it is.

Photo by Steve Ringman, the Seattle Times.

With the reservoirs gone, the landscape they covered is exposed. The gigantic stumps that stud the riverbank show the grandeur of the forests that were cut before the reservoirs were filled. The stumps document just how gigantic the trees in the virgin forest along the Elwha truly were.

Elwha Stump.jpg

Andy Ritchie, restoration hydrologist for the National Park Service, takes a closer look at a gigantic stump exposed on the east side of Lake Aldwell once the reservoir drained.

Photo by Steve Ringman, the Seattle Times

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has attached tiny numbered tags on the stumps and recorded their location to learn more about how big wood migrates in the river corridor. Large woody debris is a key piece of a healthy river. The big stumps, logs, and root wads trap gravel and create side channels and pools used by fish and other animals.

Lake Mills inundated approximately 438 acres of land, and the dam facilities covered another 5 to 10 acres. Most of the forested area surrounding Lake Mills is designated federal wilderness. It will be a long time before the former lake bed looks anything like the forest that surrounds it.

P1050216 Panorama.jpgThe Elwha River winds through what used to be Lake Mills.

The big picture: This is what recovery looks like, in year one in the beginning of a long process. Here the Elwha River runs freely through what was Lake Mills for the first time in a century.

Photo by John Gussman



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