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LocalSand Returns to Rocky Elwha Beach

November 1, 2012

Andy Ritchie, Elwha restoration project hydrologist for the National Park Service, examines remnants of the pre-dam forest floor exposed by the Elwha's erosive power

Photographer: STEVE RINGMAN / The Seattle Times

Scientist Ian Miller is looking for sand on the beach. That may not sound difficult, but sand on this stony beach was hard to find before the Elwha Dam was removed. Now, Miller is seeing new sand begin to cover the cobble where the Elwha River flows into the sea.

Workers finished removing the Elwha Dam in August, 2012. Now, the river is flowing freely to the ocean. Fish can swim up river to lay their eggs. Wood and sediment can flow down river to the beach. The sediment becomes sand that helps build up the beach and seafloor.

Before the dam came down, the beach was being washed away. Miller said it eroded 12 feet each year. Members of the Klallam Tribe said their ancestors used to dig for clams, but now it is too rocky. Scientists and the tribe hope that the dam removal will help restore the beach.

Miller and other scientists are tracking the restoration. Some dive into the ocean to study changes on the seafloor. Others, like Miller, record changes to the beach. He uses photography to study the sand and “smart rocks” – stones with a radio tag attached – to follow stones carried by the river.

So far, scientists have seen many changes, but they still don’t know how much the beach will recover in the long term. For now, all they know is that sand is returning to the beach. And this, they say, is the change they were looking for.

Published November 2012

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