About 75 people turned out Saturday morning to view the Beach Lake shoreline, just east of the Elwha River estuary. Their tracks are seen here, some of the first on the new sand. (Chris McDaniel/Peninsula Daily News)

Restored expanse of beach near Elwha River shared with public

PORT ANGELES — About 75 North Olympic Peninsula residents and visitors have been treated to a glimpse of the renewed Beach Lake shoreline east of the Elwha River estuary, courtesy of the Coastal Watershed Institute.

The beach is located on private property along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and is not yet accessible to the public.

Attendees at Saturday’s tour were curious about the recent $2 million, multi-agency effort to remove shoreline armoring from the beach, allowing the shore to restore itself with sediment moving as a result of the removal of the dams on the nearby Elwha River.

“At first I was wondering what the deal was with taking all the rocks out,” said Phillip Roush, a Port Angeles resident who toured the beach with his wife, Kathy.

“I figured they must have been put there for a reason. [CWI] was pretty cool about explaining why they had to remove them and the rapid change that developed as soon as they did.”

The armor was placed beginning in the 1950s to stem erosion east of the Elwha River mouth. The shoreline had been eroding because naturally flowing sediment was blocked by the river’s two dams.

The Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were removed beginning in 2012 and ending in 2014 to restore the river to its wild state in accordance with the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, releasing a century’s worth of sediment that had collected behind the dams.

The old armor had been keeping fine sands and woody debris suspended by wave action, preventing natural beach formation.

Sediment from the river, which is driven by tides, prevailing winds and waves, can now settle on the beach with the armor out of the way and help restore the area for fish and wildlife habitat.

The “sneak preview” of the beach was conducted a year before the property is anticipated to be available for public access, said Jamie Michel, CWI nearshore biologist, during the tour.

“We wanted to celebrate the fact that there has been significant conservation [efforts] for our community and a new shoreline access point that is in the works,” Michel said.

“It is still a work in progress, but we are working as quickly as possible to get it available for public use. In the meantime we wanted to showcase the property and feature the recent changes to the beach.”

This spring, CWI was awarded just under $1.5 million in state and federal grant funding for the conservation and restoration of the beach area, Michel said.

In early August 2016, CWI completed a conservation purchase of the property with funds from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. CWI then began the process of removing abandoned shoreline armor from a half-mile section of the beach.

Bruch and Bruch Construction Inc., of Port Angeles provided a team of equipment operators to get Phase I of the armor removal accomplished, according to a news release.

Several more partners were involved in the process, with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe considered a key partner in the restoration.

During the week of Aug. 13, during the last daylight low tidal cycle of the year, about 3,000 cubic yards of riprap and concrete slab was removed from the Beach Lake shoreline. That is estimated to be about 1/3 of the total estimated derelict rock at the site, according to the release.

“We know there is some still buried under the beach, and we are anticipating a need to get back out and remove that in the years ahead,” Michel said.

Upcoming winter storms that move through the area might expose the remaining rock armor, allowing for easier removal, he said.

“That is what we are predicting will be the easiest time to get out and see what is there,” Michel said.

“The winter storms have the most energy and do a lot of beach re-arrangement. We have permits that will allow us to come out in April and work as late as October.”

Once the rock armoring was removed — it is stacked in a large pile to the south of the beach — the transformation was immediate, Michel said.

“We thought it would take time, [but] we didn’t know how much time,” he said.

“When we started to see things change within one tidal cycle. It really was unexpected. Something like this has never really happened at this scale. We are all learning along the way and are excited to see how quickly something like that” progresses.

Roush is looking forward to using the beach when it is completed.

“This is going to be a jewel of a beach for the public to enjoy,” he said.

Linda Carroll, who lives east of Port Angeles, said she is “ecstatic” about the project.

“It has got such easy access,” she said. “I am getting older, and certainly the access to get to the beach is easy.”

Although the transition so far has been profound, the work is not complete, Michel said.

Significant funding is needed — between $500,000 and $700,000 — to complete the project, he said.

Another hurdle is deciding which public entity will manage the beach, Michel said.

“When we presented this project to the funding agencies and wrote the grants, we had identified that we would work with a local conservation partner for the long term management and stewardship of the property,” he said.

“We have been negotiating most significantly with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the intent is they would likely be the recipient.”

For more, visit http://tinyurl.com/PDN-CWI-Blog.

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Features Editor Chris McDaniel can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56650, or at cmcdaniel@peninsuladailynews.com.