Above, you can see in a 1908 map that the Elwha River had an almost mile long tidal lagoon complex that was connected to the river and was protected by a sand spit. These back spit lagoons are critical for resting juvenile salmon, including Chinook, coho, chum, steelhead, and bulltrout, as well as forage fish. Over the course of the next century, the installation and operation of two dams in this watershed severely decreased delivery of beach forming sediment and wood to the beaches adjacent to the river.
By 1939, the lagoon is disconnected from the river, forming what is now known as “Beach Lake”. Beginning in the 1950’s large rip rap armor and concrete slabs were placed on the waterward side of the north boundary of Beach Lake in a failed attempt to ‘stop’ erosion. However, with the dams still in place the beach forming sediment supply was still cut off, and the shoreline now covered with sediment deflecting armor. The shoreline continued to erode at a dramatic rate. The majority of the remnant Beach Lake armoring disappeared into the Strait of Juan de Fuca by 2006.
By 2011 photo (above), Beach Lake was reduced to approximately 8 acres in size (a fraction of it’s historic scale). The legacy of the armor that had been placed along the shoreline of Beach Lake to “protect” it from erosion had failed repeatedly and now instead was littered throughout 2 acres of the intertidal shoreline-and was preventing beach forming sediment from settling.
Whats Dam Removal Got to Do With It ?
The removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams began in September 2011. In the above 2015 photo, you can see the dramatic expansion of the Elwha River delta (~100 acres of new estuary habitat) and a yellow line indicating the location of the failed armoring that was littered throughout the historic Beach Lake nearshore. Not only was this abandoned armor no longer serving a functional purpose, it was impairing habitat for salmon and forage fish, in addition to interfering with sediment and wood delivery and other natural beach forming processes. It had all come full circle for this armor. First, it was put there to prevent erosion that occurred because of the dams, but after 70 years, we learned that it was not successful at preventing erosion and it was actually interfering with the beach’s ability to mend itself once the removal of the dams delivered a 100-year pulse of sediment to this shoreline.
Comparing the above 1950 and 2016 photos of this shoreline, you can see a dramatic shift from a sandy vegetated natural beach to a heavily altered beach that was littered with abandoned armor rock up to 6 feet in diameter.
In 2015, at the 9th Annual Elwha Nearshore Consortium workshop, Jamie Michel ( CWI nearshore biologist and project lead), initiated and led an interdisciplinary dialog that identified, for the first time, the direct relationship between shoreline armoring and the persistent erosion on this stretch of Elwha shoreline. And the first ecosystem restoration project of the Elwha nearshore was born. Coastal Watershed Institute approached the owner of a portion of this shoreline about their interest in a conservation sale of their property so that this stretch of shoreline could be restored to a natural beach and made available for the public to visit. The landowner was very supportive of this concept as were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) and the Puget Sound Partnership. Puget Sound Partnership designated this project, named the Beach Lake Acquisition and Restoration Project, their #1 Habitat Priority in their 2016 Puget Sound Action Agenda which is available here. In August of 2016, Coastal Watershed Institute purchased this property with funds from USFWS and RCO and immediately began the process of bringing this shoreline back to its full potential. All of this happened just in time, as the beach forming sediments made available by dam removal will only be in this stretch of shoreline for a short duration as the high wind and wave energy quickly moves sediment along this shoreline. If we had waited any longer, we may not have had the chance to allow this beach to rebuild itself naturally.
Dawn, August 13, 2016, construction crews get to work removing armor from this beach.
By 11 am the tide has come in and the beach work concludes for the day.
Over the course of 6 days, approximately 3,000 cubic yards of abandoned armor and 100 cubic yards of concrete were removed from 2 acres of tidelands along 1/2 mile of shoreline so that this shoreline can repair itself.
Elwha Nearshore Rising
Within just one tidal cycle, natural processes were able to deliver beach forming material (sand and wood) to the upper portions of the beach and some areas of the beach grew upwards by almost 10 feet and outwards by 20 feet. Pretty amazing how capable a natural system is of repairing itself once we get the impediments out of the way.
Above is a beautiful August 20, 2016 aerial photo of the expanding Elwha River delta and newly restored shoreline. Notice how a lagoon system is beginning to re-establish to the left of the river’s mouth. Who knows how this shoreline will continue to evolve now that another significant natural process impediment has been removed, but we are excited to watch and learn.
None of this work would have been possible without the partnership and support of numerous organizations. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was a key partner in the restoration. Bruch and Bruch Construction provided an outstanding team of equipment operators to get Phase I of the rock removal accomplished. (Pictured above with the 3,000 cubic yard mountain of armor removed from the beach are (L-R Yonara Carillho of SWCA Environmental Consultants and George, Dale and Daryl of Bruch and Bruch Construction). Additional partners essential to this project include: The Phillips Family, North Olympic Land Trust, John L Scott Real Estate, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Clallam County, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, North Olympic Peninsula Lead Entity for Salmon Recovery, Coastal Geologic Services, Stratum Group, 2 Grade Excavation, LLC, Patagonia (which is funding our ongoing monitoring), Olympic Peninsula Surfrider Foundation, Ecotrust, Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, Hayes Family Foundation, Rose Foundation, The Seattle Foundation, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and Lighthawk.
Dr Anne Shaffer, lead scientist at CWI, leads the monitoring efforts underway on the project.
Over 2016-2018, the project beach continued to evolve as high energy winter storms and king tides rearranged the shoreline. Portions of the newly deposited sediment were whisked away, but were just as quickly replaced by newly accumulated large woody debris (LWD). In the years when this shoreline was heavily armored, the LWD just bounced off of the armoring and was not delivered to the upper beach. LWD is a key structural component that helps create beach stability and we are excited to see that this habitat-sustaining and beach-forming feature has been naturally re-integrated into this ½ mile of shoreline as a result of dam removal and shoreline armor removal. Along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it is common for beaches to erode in the winter and then rebuild with beach forming material delivered by alongshore transport and summer swell. The ability of a beach to retain the summer delivery of beach forming material through winter storms is greatly enhanced by the presence of LWD which helps to lattice the beach together. In the photo below, you will see that the old ‘sentinel’ snag that was an eagle perch and photo reference point has fallen over, but is now one of many new pieces of LWD on the beach.
Something else we have noticed is the re-emergence of shoreline armor that was buried within the beach last August when we conducted Phase I of armor removal. Because of the decades long legacy of failed armor attempts, we knew that this was likely to happen as buried armor ‘swam to the surface’, so the project was permitted to allow armor removal from the beach as it surfaced from 2016-2021. In 2016 we removed ~3,000 cubic yards of abandoned armor from the shoreline (~150 dump truck loads) of the estimated 8,000 cubic yards that were a part of the failed armor structure that was littered on top of and within the beach.
During a daylight negative tide that occurred on the last Friday of April 2017, we mobilized a construction crew to remove all the abandoned armor that was visible on the beach surface. Approximately 25 dump truck loads were pulled from the beach for a volume of ~500 cubic yards of concrete slabs and rip rap boulders removed from the beach.
What Happens Next?
The upland restoration of the property is mostly complete and the site is ready for public visitation. We continue to monitor the shoreline for newly emerged armor, beach change, forage fish spawning, beach wrack, beach invertebrates and LWD. So far we have mobilized heavy equipment 14 times and have removed approximately 80% of the armor that was estimated to be littered on 2 acres of tidelands along ½ mile of the project area shoreline. Check back for more updates as they happen.
-by Jamie Michel, Project Lead