WCU geology professor to take part in Pacific Northwest dam removal study

CULLOWHEE – A geology professor from Western Carolina University will spend the next few months in Olympic National Park in Washington attempting to gauge the impact of the nation’s largest dam removal project on water quality in what was once one of the Pacific Northwest’s most productive salmon rivers.

A $182 million federally funded plan to restore the Elwha River, the largest watershed in Olympic National Park, will result in the removal of two dams – the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam. The project, set to begin in 2007, is designed to re-establish the salmon fishery in the Elwha River and restore the river’s delta area to its original sandy coastal environment.

National Park Service officials expect it to take up to three years to remove the dams, built more than 70 years ago without required passages to allow salmon to migrate upstream to spawn. The dams have choked off salmon runs for most of the past century, and biologists estimate that the current run of salmon is about 1 percent of its pre-dam levels.

As part of the removal project, however, several million cubic yards of sediment will be released into the Elwha, initially hurting the water quality of the river. That’s where Western’s Rob Young, associate professor of geology and a nationally known expert in the field of coastal and wetland science, comes in to the picture.

Young will guide the design and monitoring phases of the coastal restoration, an effort that could last at least 10 years. He is negotiating a long-term agreement with the park service that would enable WCU geology undergraduates to monitor the coastline ecosystem recovery through fieldwork and remote data collection.

“This will provide an opportunity for Western students to participate in one of the nation’s most important environmental restoration projects,” Young said. “This is a precedent-setting project. A coastal restoration of this type has never been attempted as part of a large river restoration effort.”

The project also has implications for Western North Carolina, as Duke Power is considering removal of a dam on the Tuckaseigee River in Dillsboro. “While removal of the dam in Jackson County would be on a smaller scale than what will be happening in Olympic National Park, being involved in the Washington project will provide me with valuable insights into what happens to a river ecosystem when a dam is removed,” Young said.

While in Washington, Young will document the current physical and biological environment of the shoreline around the mouth of the Elwha, investigate pre-dam conditions to clarify the “natural” state of the stretch of shoreline, examine evidence of coastal change since the dams were built, and develop parameters to monitor the shoreline as restoration proceeds to judge the impact of river restoration on coastal environments.

“This is an exciting time to get involved in an exciting project, and it has great potential to benefit our students,” Young said. “The field of environmental restoration is one of the best avenues for jobs in geosciences today. By participating in this and other projects, our geology program is positioning itself to become a national leader in this field.”

For information about Western’s programs in geosciences and natural resources management, call (828) 227-7367.