The changes in the Elwha River have been astounding since the two fish-blocking dams came down.
The river has been freed to its wild state, sediment once trapped behind dams has created a new beach teaming with wildlife at the river’s mouth and salmon are making their way back to the river once known for huge runs.
The new wild river, no longer contained or predictable, also has made less welcome changes.
Among them is the danger posed to Port Angeles’ industrial water supply and its potable water backup.
Before the dams — one completed in 1911 and the other in 1927 — were demolished from 2011-2014, the cost to the city to maintain the supply of industrial water from the Elwha River was $60,000 a year.
Now, the potential cost has increased by more than 10 times to more than $600,000 annually.
That is a price the residents of Port Angeles can’t pay. Nor should they. The decision to return the river to a wild state was made on the national level. City residents shouldn’t be left holding the bag for an ongoing expense.
The deal was that the city would take over water treatment facilities built by the National Park Service on the 45-mile-long river at some point after the dams came down.
It has taken possession of the water treatment plant 2.8 miles from the river, which provides potable water, but not of the facilities on the river which are for industrial water and potable water backup.
There were problems. The original facility on the river — part of the $325 million federal price tag — couldn’t handle the large amount of sediment trapped behind the dams as it came down the river. By the time an estimated 6 million cubic yards of the some 34 million cubic yards trapped behind the dams came down the river, the intake at the water treatment plant built by the park service was clogged with dirt. Also repairs of the pumping station were needed.
The city declined to take over the facilities until repairs were made.
Now, city officials are looking at a massive rise in the cost of operating and maintaining the facilities.
Before the dams were removed, it was a simple system that provided industrial water fed to town through a gravity flow system.
Today, the system is much more complex, using large, expensive pumps that must be maintained and eventually replaced.
To complicate matters, the freed Elwha is moving away from its original east bank, where the Ranney well is located, and veering toward the west side.
That will necessitate engineered log jams to attempt to persuade the river to stay the course. Such log jams cost between $1 million and $2 million — and may not survive winter storms.
At present, industrial water is provided to three customers — the paper plant at the beginning of Ediz Hook, the Lower Elwha fishery and a state hatchery.
But having a high amount of high-quality water is attractive to industry, according to City Manager Dan McKeen.
City and national park officials have been in negotiations for a year and half — with no resolution.
Because of the ongoing negotiations, McKeen will not reveal what amount of money the city of Port Angeles is requesting.
But the amount secured would be kept in a fund for use only for the water facilities, McKeen said.
Earlier this month, in response to questioning from Congressman Derek Kilmer at a House subcommittee meeting, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he planned to get involved.
“It is my understanding they are still in negotiation, and while the two sides remain apart, you have my assurance I am going to get personally involved with it because I just want it settled,” Zinke said.
That’s a hopeful sign that this issue will be cleared up and stop hanging over the heads of Port Angeles residents.
The river has wrought other changes. It was something that had never been done before. Not all results of the rehabilitation of the Elwha could be predicted.
Soon after the river was unleashed, we lost Altair Campground in the Elwha Valley. Since the last remnant of the dams came down in 2014, the river has washed out vehicle access to all of the Elwha Valley and Olympic National Park officials are seeking a long-term solution. The wild river also has scoured out support for the bridge over the Elwha River on U.S. Highway 101 west of Port Angeles. The state plans to build a new bridge to replace the aging one there for an estimated $29.3 million.
These consequences of the environmental project will no doubt be expensive, but they can be solved with engineering and construction.
The danger to a significant portion of Port Angeles’ water supply is more complicated — and more difficult to solve.
It’s good Zinke is getting involved. The residents of Port Angeles must be made whole — now and in the future.
The Peninsula Daily News editorial board consists of Publisher Terry Ward and Executive Editor Leah Leach.