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Dam big science

Scientists take a pulse before Elwha dam removal.
Glines Canyon Dam.

Glines Canyon Dam. Bureau of Reclamation

In preparation for the momentous removal of the two dams on the Elwha River, slated to begin within the next two years, scientists are finalizing their "before" snapshots of the river and its habitat. This baseline, recently published in a series of articles in the journal Northwest Science, is essential for monitoring the huge changes anticipated in landscape and wildlife once the Elwha dam, standing at 105 feet, and the Glines Canyon dam, at 210 feet, are removed.

If the dams seem big, the restoration project orchestrated by the National Park Service is surely bigger, outsized only by a similar effort in the Florida Everglades. That's because the dams wrought colossal changes in wildlife and landscape. Not only did they decimate the river's legendary salmon runs, which reverberated into declines in bear, wolf, and other wildlife populations, but they prevented silt from flowing downriver to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, leading to a substantial loss of territory for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe living at the mouth of the river. In 1992 Congress mandated the restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem, and soon after it was determined that removing the dams was the best way to do it. This got the Olympic National Park out of its awkward position of being in charge of preserving a natural ecosystem with a massive man-made one within its boundaries.

It could take 30 years to restore the river, says Dwight Barry, of Peninsula College in Port Angeles and Western Washington University (WWU). So getting a full picture of the river and its habitat now will help scientists make sense of the long-term changes to come. The eighteen new research reports establish baselines on the vast network of things likely to be affected by dam removal, including black bear populations, seed dispersal, salmon genetics and the geology of the river's mouth. Not surprisingly, a whole lot of scientists are involved, coming from academia, non-profits, state and federal governments, and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

Barry also emphasizes the undergraduates who were essential foot soliders in this research. "We've had students from Running Start teenagers all the way into folks in their forties coming back to school for a second career in science," he says of the Peninsula College and WWU undergrads. Barry coordinates student involvement in Elwha research, and adds, "In quality many of them match or exceed many graduate students I've known or worked with." In terms of education, the coming dam removal is as much history as it is science writ large.

Michele Solis is a freelance science writer living in Seattle.


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