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Science in the spotlight: Geomorphology: Large-scale dam removal on the Elwha River, Washington, USA: Coastal geomorphic change

Two dams on the Elwha River, Washington State, USA trapped over 20 million m3 of mud, sand, and gravel since 1927, reducing downstream sediment fluxes and contributing to erosion of the river’s coastal delta. The removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, initiated in September 2011, induced massive increases in river sediment supply and provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine the geomorphic response of a coastal delta to these increases. Detailed measurements of beach topography and nearshore bathymetry show that ~ 2.5 million m3 of sediment was deposited during the first two years of dam removal, which is ~ 100 times greater than deposition rates measured prior to dam removal. The majority of the deposit was located in the intertidal and shallow subtidal region immediately offshore of the river mouth and was composed of sand and gravel. Additional areas of deposition include a secondary sandy deposit to the east of the river mouth and a muddy deposit west of the mouth. A comparison with fluvial sediment fluxes suggests that ~ 70% of the sand and gravel and ~ 6% of the mud supplied by the river was found in the survey area (within about 2 km of the mouth). A Delft3D hydrodynamic and sediment transport model, validated with in-situ measurements, shows that tidal currents interacting with the larger relict submarine delta help disperse fine sediment large distances east and west of the river mouth. The Delft3D model also suggests that waves and currents erode the primary deposit located near the river mouth and transport sandy sediment eastward to form the secondary deposit. Though most of the substrate of the larger relict submarine delta was unchanged during the first two years of dam removal, portions of the seafloor close to the river mouth became finer, modifying habitats for biological communities. These results show that river restoration, like natural changes in river sediment supply, can result in rapid and substantial coastal geomorphological responses.

Guy Gelfenbaum, Andrew W. Stevens, Ian Miller, Jonathan A. Warrick, Andrea S. Ogston, Emily Eidam

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