The Elwha dam removal project presents an ideal opportunity to study how historic reduction and subsequent restoration of sediment supply alter river-floodplain dynamics in a large, forested river floodplain. We used remote sensing and onsite data collection to establish a historical record of floodplain dynamics and a baseline of current conditions. Analysis was based on four river reaches, three from the Elwha River and the fourth from the East Fork of the Quinault River. We found that the percentage of floodplain surfaces between 25 and 75 years old decreased and the percentage of surfaces >75 years increased in reaches below the Elwha dams. We also found that particle size decreased as downstream distance from dams increased. This trend was evident in both mainstem and side channels. Previous studies have found that removal of the two Elwha dams will initially release fine sediment stored in the reservoirs, then in subsequent decades gravel bed load supply will increase and gradually return to natural levels, aggrading river beds up to 1 m in some areas. We predict the release of fine sediments will initially create bi-modal grain size distributions in reaches downstream of the dams, and eventual recovery of natural sediment supply will significantly increase lateral channel migration and erosion of floodplain surfaces, gradually shifting floodplain age distributions towards younger age classes.
Additional publication details
Influence of dams on river-floodplain dynamics in the Elwha River, Washington