It was the most expensive
single part of the $325 million Elwha dam-removal project: a
$79 million water-facilities project designed and built for
the National Park Service that has never
worked as originally planned.
Now the park service is ready to hand the plant off to the
city of Port Angeles, but the city doesn’t want it, saying
it doesn’t work and will cost too much to operate.
The city says it won’t take
over the facilities — which include screens, pumps, a water
intake, a water-treatment plant and other components —
without $16 million in repairs first. The city also wants
money to cover higher than anticipated operating costs for
20 years, for a total of $41 million.
“We are not complaining about
dam removal,” said Bill Bloor, Port Angeles city attorney.
“But there are lots and lots of problems.”
The city on June 20 invoked a
dispute-resolution clause under a three-way 2004 memorandum
of understanding with the park service and Lower Elwha
Klallam Tribe. The three are in talks now to work out the
The park service also contracted to build an $18 million
fish hatchery, in part, to provide a safe place to curate
populations of threatened fish while sediment released by
dam removal coursed through the river. The city of Port
Angeles also got a new $27.6 million municipal water plant
out of the dam-removal deal, negotiated over many years
after passage by Congress of the original Elwha act in 1992.
Part of the act promised that the water supply for the city
would be the same both in quality and quantity after dam
removal as before — leading to construction of all the
water-treatment and flood-control facilities.
The idea was to have those in place once the dams came down
to clean heavy loads of sediment from the Elwha River for
industrial water users, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s
hatchery, the state’s fish-rearing channel, and as a backup
source of water for Port Angeles.
But now, the park service contends, the river has settled
down and is past its high-impact sediment stage. And it’s
time for the feds to get out of the water-treatment
“The river is back to its normal state, and we feel our
obligations are done,” said Brian Winter, Elwha project
manager for the park service. But the city and tribe
Problem from start
The Elwha Water Facilities
project, in particular, has been problematic from the start.
The water-treatment plant, screens and pumps choked on woody
debris and sediment beginning in October 2012. Next came a
series of repairs and retrofits to the plant that delayed
work on dam removal for a year. Today the plant is more
difficult and expensive to run than promised, the tribe and
city say, and the water still doesn’t meet their standards.
The tribe isn’t happy with $40,000 to $50,000 it spends each
year pumping ground water to its hatchery because water from
the treatment plant doesn’t have the clarity required, said
Michael Peters, CEO for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
For its part, the city contends a promise in the original
1992 Elwha Act means the city should not now, nor into the
future, have to shoulder additional costs for water.
The water in the dammed river was so spectacularly clear, it
was delivered from a well under the Elwha to the city’s old
water plant nearly 20 times cleaner than industry standard.
So clean, that no treatment was needed at all, other than a
little shot of chlorine. The city’s water costs were
extraordinarily low, at $110,000 a year in the most
expensive of 10 years before dam removal, Bloor said.
But Winter said the managed river created by the dams that
the city was used to is no more. And no water plant will
bring it back.
Two dams built beginning in 1910 on the Elwha backed up
large reservoirs that acted as giant settling ponds, and
impounded sediment carried by the river during the 100 years
the dams were in place. In September 2014, the
world’s largest ever dam-removal project was completed
and, with the dams out, the river is free, once more, to
wander its flood plain, and release sediment.
“You will always have sediment spikes,” Winter said. “The
river always did before the dams.
“What the city has to contend with now is a natural river,
which they didn’t have before.”
Further, it’s up to the secretary of the Interior, not the
city or tribe, to determine when the federal government has
met its water-treatment responsibilities under the original
Elwha Act, M. Sarah Creachbaum, superintendent of the
Olympic National Park, wrote the city and tribe last
Three-quarters of the Elwha watershed is in the Olympic
National Park, and the park service was the lead agency on
the dam-removal project.
Creachbaum also saw no need for further modification of the
Elwha Water Facilities, which she said malfunctioned because
of the unnaturally high sediment loads in the river caused
by dam removal. “These conditions will never be seen in the
Elwha River again,” she noted.
If the water plant turns out to
be a white elephant nobody wants, it will be up to the
General Services Administration to arrange disposition of
it. The feds can’t force the city to take it, nor can the
city or tribe force the park service to continue to operate
it, or make alterations, Creachbaum wrote.
Peters, of the tribe, agrees with the city the sediment
impact period hasn’t passed, and the feds’ work is not done.
And not only with regard to water quality.
Other promises of the original Elwha Act also have not been
met, Peters noted. The tribe is still awaiting transfer of
1,100 acres of land — the so-called project lands — that had
been inundated by the reservoirs behind the dams, as well as
some uplands, promised
to the tribe. Those lands include the tribe’s creation
site, revealed by the receding lakes.
Also yet to be conferred is a $4 million settlement with the
has never received.
Other unfinished business include getting debris and
concrete out of the river that was left behind at the lower
dam site, creating dangerous
conditions for boaters. The park service will address
that this summer, Winter said.
Needed, too, is work below the former Glines Canyon Dam —
the upper of the two — to improve passage for fish. A rock
fall caused by dam construction is blocking passage, and
some blasting last fall to address the problem has not yet
Work this summer will enable biologists to determine what
more needs to be done next year, Winter said.
Also in the works are repairs
to the Olympic Hot Springs Road, which the Elwha took
out in a storm last year. Contractors’ bids will be opened
later this month, and the park service will determine then
if materials will be on hand soon enough to do the repairs
to reopen the road to vehicle traffic this summer.
Otherwise that, too, will have to wait until next year.
Just because the dams are down, Peters said, doesn’t mean
the project is finished. “There needs to be a recognition by
everyone, not just the park service, even Congress, that
this system, this demonstration project is not completed
just because a certain amount of time has passed,” Peters
said. “There are promises not yet met.”