Dungeness Watershed Facts
16,000+ people live in the Dungeness River Watershed (74 people per square mile).
Restoration Project Accomplishments
The Dungeness River Management Team brings a solid partnership to the Dungeness Watershed Restoration effort.
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The Dungeness River is a study in contrasts
From its headwaters at 7,000 feet in the Olympic Peninsula's Buckhorn Wilderness, the Dungeness, one of America's steepest rivers, loses an astonishing 4,000 feet in elevation during its first four miles, rushing cold and swift through narrow canyons thick with trees. During the latter half of the river's brief 32 miles, the Dungeness slows dramatically as its winds through the flat, arid northern edge of the Peninsula.
Such striking contrasts in the river's 172,000-acre watershed dictate differing approaches in management and restoration, presenting unique challenges to the federal, state, local and tribal agencies concerned with maintaining the river's ecological health.
Yet despite the challenges, the relatively short course of the river and cooperation among the area's stakeholders provides an excellent opportunity to realize a holistic vision of restoration on the Dungeness that stretches from the mountain ridges of the Olympic range to the ocean waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
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OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST, WASH. – Scott Hagerty, a soil scientist with the Olympic National Forest's Hood Canal Ranger District, can sum up the Forest's main restoration focus in the upper Dungeness watershed in one word: roads.
Standing on the precipice of a washed-out Olympic Forest road, it is easy to see why. Loose, gravely soil slips and slides down a dizzyingly steep slope toward the faint sound of the rushing river far below. The more fine-grained sediment that makes it downslope to the river, the worse the spawning and rearing conditions for the river's 10 distinct anadromous fish stocks, the most in Washington for a river its size. Those stocks include Chinook, pink, and chum salmon, steelhead, as well as bull trout and cutthroat trout. Three species – bull trout, summer chum and Chinook – are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Hagerty says a combination of loose, gravelly soils and very steep terrain in the Dungeness make the region already naturally prone to landslides and erosion. The Dungeness receives a fraction of the rain that falls on other Peninsula rivers, due to the Olympic Mountain's rain shadow effect. Sequim, a growing community on the banks of the lower Dungeness, gets just 17 inches of average rainfall per year, compared to the 240 inches of precipitation at Mount Olympus, a mere 35 miles away.
The steep, slide-prone landscape of the upper Dungeness is also criss-crossed with 108 miles of roads, which can exacerbate erosion problems. But simply removing all roads is not an option: many serve as well-traveled gateways for recreationists seeking access to the Buckhorn Wilderness and Olympic National Park, which is ringed by National Forest land.
"If two roads are going to the same place, then we can choose to decommission one," says Bob Metzger, aquatics program manager with the Forest. "And if the road we're choosing to decommission is the more popular route, then we have to do upgrades on the other road to handle the new traffic."
Metzger and his colleagues got the chance to do just that when they undertook a decommissioning project in an area hit particularly hard by winter floods in 1999.
Working with the local watershed council, the Dungeness River Management Team, the Forest leveraged $85,000 in funds from the Pacific Coast Watershed Partnership to obtain a larger grant from the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board. This grant, sponsored by Clallam Conservation District, helped decommission three and a half miles of a popular road, stabilizing another six miles of an alternate road and repairing seven flood damage sites in the process. Decommissioning entails removing road culverts to improve drainage and fish passage, stabilizing fillslopes, ripping the road surface and outsloping some road segments.
The District Ranger also made the tough choice to decommission a popular 10-site campground adjacent to the river, removing the campground's infrastructure, replanting the riparian zone with conifers, and placing large logs near the riverbank to catch sediment and slow water when river levels rise. While clearly the best option under the Northwest Forest Plan's Aquatic Conservation Strategy, the decision was still a tough sell with the public. A series of public meetings, creation of a new hiking trail and parking area as well as the Forest's extensive road inventory, which analyzed and prioritized which roads should be dealt with first, all helped make the case for the project.
But more work awaits. Hagerty says the Forest's road analysis identified a full 36 percent of the Olympic's 2,254 miles of forest roads as "high hazard potential" when factoring in proximity to fish habitat, potential for instability, stream crossing densities and other criteria. As such, approximately 800 miles of roads within the Forest are slated for decommissioning, roughly a third of the total.
One of the Forest's highest priority roads in the Dungeness watershed, according to Hagerty, is near Eddy Creek, a tributary to the Dungeness. The winding road cuts into an extremely steep slope, with trees askew at varying angles illustrating natural landslides already underway. Nearly 100 feet below the road's surface, a culvert juts into mid-air, sending water cascading down the steep embankment.
"This is a measure of the extent of decommissioning work we have on the Forest," says Metzger, noting that to properly decommission the road, they will have to first lower it to the culvert's level in order to remove the culvert and restore the streambed to its natural state. "We're talking about 27,000 cubic meters of fill material that will have to be removed. That's approximately 2,700 dump truck loads just for these two stream crossings."
Once the huge undertaking is completed, the stream crossings will flow over the former road surface, buffeted by rip rap and large logs to prevent further erosion. In addition, Hagerty says he would like to use educational signs alongside the Eddy Creek project to give visitors an idea of how the Forest is tackling the problem of sedimentation into the watershed's waterways.
"This is good restoration work, and we should let people know what's going on," he says.
And Eddy Creek is not alone. The Forest's road analysis also identified more than 100 culvert fish passage barriers. Tackling culverts goes hand in hand with road decommissioning, but it all takes funding, which Hagerty says is unfortunately becoming more scarce.
"Our big concern is that we're really at a crossroads in funding," he says. "We've identified the areas where we want to do work, but there's not a lot of funding out there now for work on federal lands. The dollars are drying up just when we have our road priorities identified."
On the lower Dungeness outside the Forest boundary, the river meanders through farmland and the community of Sequim, a stark contrast to its steep, cold-running headwaters. In Sequim, signs of change and growth are everywhere. Following the river's northerly path toward the stretch of blue sea that separates the Peninsula from Vancouver Island, we pass golf courses, retirement homes, subdivisions – all the usual suspects of sprawl. Plans are in the works for a big-box retail development, most likely a Wal-Mart, which would bookend the town's downtown.
While Sequim's steady growth – aided by its scant rainfall and mild climate – is a concern for water quality in the entire Dungeness region, the main priority for restoring habitat in the lower watershed lies nearly at the river mouth. The area, known as Rivers End, encompasses 2.7 miles of the river's final stretch, where numerous homes have been built on former pasture land.
Laying out a series of historical aerial photos, Hagerty shows how the Rivers End property and surrounding development used a series of dikes to alter the river's path to the ocean. Historically, the river used to flow directly where a number of homes now stand, and when high flows breach the dikes, it still does.
So the Dungeness River Management Team is proposing the ambitious move of purchasing land from willing property owners at Rivers End. The goal is to first acquire the land and then return it to its natural state by removing dikes and letting the river take its own course. The Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe is also working with University of Washington research scientist Brian Collins to determine the historic vegetation that used to grow in the floodplain, so they can one day begin plantings.
And while the project will restore the river's mouth to a closer copy of what it once was, the plan is just the beginning of a broader strategy.
Dikes constructed to convert the floodplain of the Dungeness to pasture and farmland extend all the way to Sequim, channelizing the river and speeding up its flow, which in turn increases the amount of sediment and pollutants carried to the mouth. Cathy Lear, a planner with Clallam County, adds that the Rivers End project should help address water quality problems near the river's mouth and upstream by opening up the floodplain and estuary.
"This is just the beginning of a system-wide project," she says. "While we aim to completely remove the dike [at Rivers End], we eventually hope to move upstream and begin dike setbacks."
If successful, the river will start to move back to a natural state that can still be seen at Railroad Bridge Park, the lone spot on the lower river where the Dungeness spreads out, forming braided channels and islands while flowing through shifting log jams. The area makes prime habitat for the river's summer chum and Chinook salmon, both listed under the Endangered Species Act.
"The strategy is actually very simple. If we have high-quality habitat that's productive to salmon, we identify it and protect it," says Randy Johnson of Washington's Fish and Wildlife Department. "If we have degraded habitat that should be supporting salmon, or once did, then we have a high priority to restore that spot. So we have to consider property acquisition. Perpetual protection goes beyond tomorrow's regulations."
Though ambitious, the broad plan to restore the lower Dungeness watershed has plenty going for it:
– Solid partnerships established through the DRMT; including federal level involvement (Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest and Fish and Wildlife Services, and Bureau of Reclamation), state involvement (Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife), county government involvement (Clallam County and Clallam Conservation District and Ecology), tribal involvement (Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe), and private landowner involvement."If funding levels stay consistent, I'd hazard to say that we could see the entire area restored within 10 years," Lear says, adding that nearly $1.5 million has been amassed so far toward property acquisitions at Rivers End. "But along with the funding you need people involved that are committed to getting it done. It's amazing what we can accomplish when no one cares who takes the credit."
"It takes awhile to reach a critical mass. These are issues that take a long time to sort out," adds WDFW's Johnson. "Our collaboration will have to continue, between the state, feds, tribe and private landowners. We have a good start, and I think we'll get there."