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Port Angeles, tribe say Elwha water plant never worked, still doesn’t

Lynda V. Mapes,  

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 issues.

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 business.

“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 disagree.

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 January.

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.

White elephant

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 tribe it 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 fixed it.

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.”



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