I understand that complexity floats around us at all times. And in the infrastructure world complicated projects stretch engineers and contractors while wowing the general public (and hopefully not wowing them with ever-increasing price tags). But every so often a uniquely intricate project comes along that is unlike any other, offering a chance to educate, and possibly even become the benchmark for future jobs.
Cue the Elwah River restoration project. As chronicled in the cover story of the current Engineering News-Record issue—my first cover for ENR—there’s a variety of deconstruction and restoration steps that must happen in concert, all while a host of government agencies have worked together on timing, agreements and funding. The project has proven complex not only from a restoration effort, but from a cooperation standpoint too.
With two dams, both nearing 100 years of age, needing to vacate the river located in the Olympic National Park on western Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in an effort to restore the river’s native salmon run, there was the tricky proposition of dealing with 24.3 million cu yd of gravel, silt and other mucky sediment buildup. Simply blasting out the two dams would have sent this fish-killing mixture through a river, choking out every living thing in the process.
Instead, crews did, and are still, slowing removing the dams—Elwha Dam is gone and Glines Canyon Dam, the newer and larger of the two, will be fully out next year—to allow a safe sediment release for the fish and other wildlife. The slow release not only eases water oxygen level concerns, but helps properly erode the riverbank so as to not leave large cliff-like drops where water buildup once was.
And as the pent-up water dissipates from lakes that were situated behind dams, the revegetation effort steps up, with thousands of new native plants being added to the barren landscape of former under-lake habitat. Add in the need to properly serve a local town with drinking water, an effort to introduce even more fish to the previously unnavigable upstream river and the methodical plan for systematically removing thousands of tons of concrete and the Elwha project signifies the largest river restoration project ever undertaken in the U.S.
While there’s still simplicity in some of the parts, there’s complexity in the whole. That, coupled with the fact that the Elwha project is so unlike any other in the U.S. and agency officials of all sorts are taking notice, watching and learning about how a natural habitat responds to our efforts to restore it. I encourage you to give the article a read. Learn about a simple complexity on a project unlike any other.
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