Elwha River restoration: Lake Mills replanting to be winter work

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Still waters run deep on the Elwha River restoration project.

At first glance, the Elwha River seems quiet.

But there is ongoing ecological restoration work and monitoring of the effects of natural processes following dam removal, even in the middle of winter, said Rainey McKenna, Olympic National Park spokeswoman.

Relocation of spawning salmon from the muddy lower Elwha River to clear tributaries continued into this month while revegetation crews planted the bed of the former Lake Mills, McKenna said.

Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration often lurk just offshore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca to monitor dramatic changes still developing at the river's mouth.

“They're watching, and they're learning,” she said.

Dam removal

The removal of the last stubby remnants of Glines Canyon Dam can continue in January after the coho spawning window closes, but the next blast to remove another layer of dam concrete is not yet scheduled, McKenna said.

Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927, and the former Elwha Dam, built in 1913, were constructed without fish ladders, blocking passage for the seven species of salmon that inhabited the undammed river.

The $325 million dam-removal project is intended to restore habitat and bring back the salmon that once numbered more than 400,000 in a single run.

Dam removal is still on schedule to be finished by September despite a long delay while problems with sediment were solved, McKenna said.

The original schedule called for full removal of Glines Canyon Dam by September, and crews were nearly a year ahead of schedule when water intake filters downstream were clogged by the sediment washed out of Lake Mills.

The dam reaches across about two-thirds of the canyon, with only the “apron” remaining.

That's the 13-foot-high, 36-foot-long, 60-foot-wide base of the dam.

The river rushes through a deep notch along the rock wall on the east side of the narrow canyon.

Even as snow piled up on the peaks and ridges of the Olympic Mountains, replanting continued this month in the former Lake Mills, where the valley sits at the 600-foot elevation.

Much of the lakebed, located just inside Olympic National Park, still looks a lot like a moonscape a year after the last of the lake drained away.

Dormant period

In the middle of winter, new trees, shrubs, grasses and other plants are going into that ground.

“You want to plant when they're dormant,” said Joshua Chenoweth, restoration botanist for the Elwha River restoration project.

The replanting crew is ramping up its efforts this winter, with more than 100,000 native plants ready to be put in the mostly lifeless lakebed, Chenoweth said.

That's triple what the crew has put in the ground in previous years, he said.

Lake Aldwell, which stood behind Elwha Dam, is nearly ready to be left on its own to regrow forest, Chenoweth said.

But Lake Mills is more of a challenge.

Chenoweth said there are areas that have recovered on their own, but some parts of the silt-covered empty lakebed still need help.

Less plant stress

Planting in fall and winter doesn't seem logical to most gardeners, but that's the time when plants are dormant, so there is less stress on them.

“The ground here never really freezes, even after the cold last week,” he said.

Plants will spread their root systems during winter, he explained. They like the wet winters, and when spring arrives, they are less stressed and grow better.

Despite the seemingly natural fit of western red cedar saplings in the forest of cedar stumps that emerged from the silt, the crew has all but given up on planting the tree in the former lakebeds, Chenoweth said.

Chenoweth has taken to calling the cedar seedlings “deer candy” for the number of saplings that have been eaten and said they don't grow well in the sandy, rocky silt anyway.

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Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: December 12. 2013 9:38PM
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