Field notes from the Elwha River

Marine Science Interpreter Shelley Johnson shares her recent experience assisting with Elwha restoration research.

View of former Lake Mills Reservoir

View of former Lake Mills Reservoir, from on top of the old dam structure. Pre-water level was where the young, green alder growth meets the old-growth trees.

A few weeks ago I traveled to Port Angeles to spend five days helping researchers from NOAA and the Lower Klallam Elwha tribe with some field work on the Elwha River, tracking changes during the restoration process. It has been two years since the final stage of removal for the Glines Canyon Dam, the 64-meter hydroelectric dam that used to impound the upper reach of the Elwha River, creating Lake Mills Reservoir. Researchers from many different institutions—National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); U.S. Geological Survey (USGS); Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW); National Park Service (NPS); and the Lower Klallam Elwha tribe—continue to track changes of all aspects of the river system, from sedimentation and river flow patterns to fish and riparian vegetation surveys, in order to monitor the restoration process. The field work I helped with was collecting data on food web structure. We collected periphyton samples (the algae, bacteria and fungi living on rocks), invertebrate samples and water chemistry samples. It was amazing seeing the river returned to its wild state and getting to explore some very beautiful sections within Olympic National Park.

Remains of Glines Canyon dam

Remains of Glines Canyon dam, from a sampling site in the upper reach of the river.

I worked with some amazing scientists who have been tracking this restoration project from the beginning, and it was wonderful to hear firsthand about the return of salmon to their natural river system. Carcass and salmon red surveys conducted by the Lower Klallam Elwha tribe last year showed significant increases in the number of salmon utilizing the middle section of the river, between the former two dams. I look forward to continuing field work on this beautiful river system, to track its changes throughout its restoration!

The sampling crew

The sampling crew (Shelley in the middle) of biologists from NOAA and the Lower Klallam Elwha tribe.

According to USGS, the Elwha River basin covers about 833 square kilometers and contributes more than 1.2 cubic kilometers of freshwater per year to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The river also discharges 220,000 to 510,000 tons of sediment annually.

Shelley JohnsonAbout Shelley:

“I was born and raised in eastern Washington state and moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where I graduated in June 2015 with a B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and a minor in Marine Biology. I started working with the Seattle Aquarium as a Citizen Science Instructor in February, joined the Visitor Engagement team in April and have since been working as a Marine Science Interpreter. In addition to the Aquarium, I have been working as a contractor for the Western Fisheries Research Center (an ecosystem-focused U.S. Geological Survey science center) since last June, assisting with research focused on nearshore ecology and most recently the Elwha dam removal restoration. When I’m not at work, I enjoy spending my time outside doing things like hiking, camping, skiing and white-water rafting.”



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One Response to Field notes from the Elwha River

  1. Orlay johnson says:

    Hi Shelly, Sounds like you had a great summer field job. Who were the amazing scientists you worked with and where can we read any papers or reports on previous food web studies? Did you get work with George Pess NnWFSC?
    Thanks, Orlay

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