Reaching into the cold current, Morgan Colonel pulls a rusted hunk of metal out of the Elwha River.
Pipes. Sharklike jaws of jagged, twisted, rusted metal. Skewers of rebar, jutting from hunks of concrete. A flight of concrete stairs. He’s seen it all.
This junk and more lurk just below the surface of the Elwha and on its banks — debris from the recent removal of two dams on the river. The trash is creating such an extreme hazard that Olympic National Park managers before the Memorial Day holiday weekend put out a public advisory warning paddlers, rafters and swimmers to avoid the area around the former Elwha Dam, because of high risk of serious injury or death.
To Colonel, who runs Olympic Raft & Kayak, the park’s boating concession just over the Highway 101 bridge, the warning was long overdue. Colonel said he was so alarmed by the dangerous debris he spotted just below his raft during a trip last summer, he voluntarily stopped taking clients through the former dam site.
He said he’s found debris all over the river, not just at the dam site, from a length of chain big and long enough to secure a tugboat to lengths of pipe big enough to make into a fire pit.
Colonel feels he can safely take clients through only a mile-and-a-half stretch of river — too short to be viable. This was not what he hoped for, Colonel said, when he took over the concession in 2012. Now with the warning to boaters, “I don’t know what the future holds.” For now, he’s offering sea kayak trips and hoping to sell some of the boats beached on the grass.
Andy Ritchie, Elwha project hydrologist for Olympic National Park, has put up warnings anywhere in the river corridor it seems likely boaters will frequent, even using a gun to shoot a rope across the river to hang a sign Wednesday over the surging current, warning boaters away.
He and other scientists first noticed the hazards while snorkeling the river last summer during a fish survey.
One source of the debris at the former dam site is a hunk of the former foundation and parts of a construction caisson still in the river, said Barb Maynes, spokeswoman for the park. They were not removed because it was believed they were below the historic river channel, and would remain there.
“But that is not what happened,” Maynes said. Instead the river has been chewing and digging at its bed, and tearing them apart. That particular stretch at the former dam site is so dangerous now both because of the amount of debris there and the high-velocity currents through the channel that could toss boaters overboard — into the debris.
The plan now is to tear the remaining structures out and remove the debris, using contingency funds left in the $325 million budgeted for the dam-removal program, under a contract now in negotiation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Work is expected to begin when river flows drop late this summer, Maynes said.
The debris removal at the old dam site is just part of a work program on the Elwha that could be under way for the next two summers. Also of concern is a rock fall at the former Glines Canyon dam that is partially blocking passage to fish swimming upriver.
A rock fall dating back decades just below the dam site became a fish barrier when blasting during completion of the removal of Glines Canyon Dam added more rock to the channel.
“The rock fall definitely posed a passage issue last summer,” said George Pess, supervisory fisheries biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “Fish were stacked up last year.”
Only one chinook was recorded in the former Lake Mills last August. The park service blasted some of the rock last fall, and some steelhead already have been seen this year in the upper river. But it is yet to be seen if the passage is now sufficient for all species of the fish.
The restoration act passed by Congress in 1992 promised an open river, source to mouth, in the world’s largest dam-removal project ever. There’s more to do to make sure that promise is kept. “We really can’t say if it’s passable yet,” Pess said. “This summer will be telling.”
Next year pinks could storm the river 180,000 strong, and it is important to get passage right in time to provide them the miles of tributaries and main-stem habitat promised with dam removal, said Robert Elofson, river restoration director for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
“They are the most numerous fish,” he said of pinks. “And they probably bring the most nutrients back. It is the tribe’s position that we want to see ease of fish passage in the same condition as before the dams were put in. The sooner the better.”
Maynes said the park will be monitoring passage during low flows this summer to see if more work is needed. If so, that work may be done this year, or next.
Meanwhile the park service also is waiting on environmental permits to rebuild the Olympic Hot Springs Road, washed out by the Elwha last winter. It will take about two months to replace the bridge and once more open the road to traffic, Maynes said.
Long term, the road and two campgrounds also destroyed by the Elwha will have to be moved out of the flood plain, now that the river is free once more to roam it.
Even with all the challenges since dam removal, Colonel said he’s excited to see the river back to its wild ways. “There are naysayers who will say this is why we never should have done it,” Colonel said of the dam-removal project. “But we are seeing a healthy river coming back to life. We just need to get our man-made stuff out, and it will take care of the rest.”