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Originally published April 20, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified April 21, 2013 at 1:49 PM

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Elwha dam removal hostage to water plant repairs

Elwha dam removal is on hold until fixes can be made to expensive water-treatment facilities that don’t work. Some experts say dam removal will likely remain stalled until next year.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Elwha dam removal is hostage to repairs at water-treatment facilities built as part of the $325 million federal river-restoration project.

The National Park Service, which is leading the dam-removal project, has hired a contractor for the repairs, and said work on taking down the last third of Glines Canyon Dam will resume July 1. The agency predicts work will be complete well before the contract to remove the dams ends in September 2014.

But it could be a much longer wait. Contractors don’t yet have a proven fix for the problems bedeviling the project since last October. And even if they fix the problems by July, some experts say dam removal will likely remain on hold until next year.

That‘s because by July spring runoff will be over, and resuming dam removal in waning flows could put too much sediment into the river just before fish enter the Elwha in August and September, a time when dam removal would be on hold anyway, said Tim Randle, who is coordinating sediment management on the dam-removal project for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“We told them if they can’t do anything in April, forget it,” Randle said of the park service. “ ... I just think it is technically feasible that [sediment] will overwhelm the river, and wells and everything else. Maybe there is some hope, maybe something will happen. But I don’t see any feasible way they can finish removal until next year.”

The Elwha Water Facilities project, consisting of a $29 million surface-water intake and a $48 million water-treatment plant, was completed in 2011. It was built to divert and clarify water clouded with high levels of sediment during and directly after dam removal.

It provides treated water to industrial users: Nippon Paper Industries USA in Port Angeles, one of the city’s largest private employers; a rearing channel used by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to raise chinook salmon for Elwha salmon recovery; the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s new hatchery; and the municipal water plant for the city of Port Angeles.

The $30 million municipal plant was also built by the park service as part of the restoration project because of increased sedimentation of the Elwha during dam removal. The city draws its water supply from the river.

The water-quality-protection facilities built to deal with sediment set loose by dam removal already were the most expensive piece of the $325 million Elwha project. And that was before the repairs and delays started.

More than $162 million was spent on the Elwha water facilities, far more than on ecosystem restoration, at $27 million — including revegetating the former lake beds, fish rearing, restoration and monitoring combined. Dam removal, including taking down both dams, removing the power lines and decommissioning the lower plant, cost $35 million.

The water facilities seemed promising at the start, with the designer, URS Corporation of Denver, winning a prestigious national award from a national professional association. But somewhere between the lump crab and avocado salad at the black-tie awards gala last spring and the first slug of sediment served up by the Elwha as the rains began in the fall, something went wrong.

City of Port Angeles public-works crews on the day before Thanksgiving responded to a call for help from the plant’s operator, who was battling sand, leaves, twigs, bits of waterlogged woody debris, gravel and more invading the equipment. City employees sucked out mounds of muck for hours. That, it turns out, was just the beginning.

Sophisticated plant

The state-of-the-art plant, with its touch-screen controls and gleaming stainless-steel components, is so sophisticated it can be operated remotely via laptop computer. But instead, the plant has been so problematic that Veolia Water, the contractor running the plant for the park service, has had to staff it 24/7, just to keep it running, M. Sarah Creachbaum, superintendent of Olympic National Park, told the city of Port Angeles in a letter April 2.

The park service in December hired a consultant who convened a day-and-a-half-long brainstorming session to come up with the fix that is now under way.

The litany of the plant’s woes to be corrected was formidable:

The plant choked on sediment loads well below what it was made to handle.

It was supposed to settle out sediment from the flow into clarifying tanks, to produce treated water. But instead, long before it reaches the tanks, muck is settling out of the water and accumulating as much as 4 to 6 feet deep, clogging the intake channels and fish screens.

Cleaning the channels manually is labor intensive and wasn’t anticipated in the daily operating staffing of the plant. It’s also not a long-term solution. The plant has to be kept running around the clock for years, and yet problems with clogging have plagued virtually every aspect of operations.

Raising the fish screens to let water pass allows waterlogged woody debris into the water clarifiers, where it also clogs pumps. The reduced flow rate through the plant — because of all the accumulated sediment — has also caused sediment to collect in clarifier tanks. So much so that the mechanism has to be shut down and the tanks manually cleaned.

The fish screens appear to be the primary choke point. But there have been serious problems with the water intake to the plant, too, with gravel settling as much as 2 inches deep and moving into the intake’s pipeline to the plant.

Meanwhile, the fixes are not going as planned, either. New fish screens were supposed to be installed and operational by April 11, according to the contract signed by the park service. The new screens rotate and are installed vertically instead of horizontally. They are cleaned on the inside and outside surface with hydraulically powered wire brushes.

As of Tuesday, two of the six screens, which are about 4½ feet high and 5 feet across, were installed, but four were still shrink-wrapped and sitting on the grass by the river. By Friday, they were in storage.

There is so much sediment in the pipes behind the screens that lead to the treatment plant that they have to be cleaned out before the new screens can go in.

At the other end of the pipeline, workers were pumping sediment from the intake to the plant in a muddy plume. A wooden wall had been built in an attempt to reduce the volume of water entering the plant. By putting a squeeze on the flow, crews hoped to increase its velocity, to keep sediment in suspension until it reaches the tanks, rather than settling out in heaps in the intake.

That wasn’t working, either.

Lots of sediment

The state Department of Health noted its concern in a letter to park-service officials last week because the treatment plant fails to deliver the purity of water required to the city of Port Angeles for its drinking-water supply.

“Given the variations in the finished water quality, we are concerned that the Elwha Water Treatment Plant may not be a reliable source of supply for the city,” wrote Virpi Salo-Zieman, a regional engineer for the department who visited the plant April 4.

She requested a review of treatment processes at the city’s municipal plant before the city is allowed to make drinking water from the Elwha Treatment Plant.

That means the city has had to fall back on using its well to supply its municipal treatment plant — and so far, the city has been able to produce perfect drinking water. But relying on its well defeats the purpose of building the $79 million plant and intake in the first place, Salo-Zieman noted, to avoid clogging the city’s well during the period of increased sedimentation in the river.

A river side channel that feeds the well also is loading up with sediment, which could eventually choke the city’s well, Salo-Zieman noted.

The city is pumping from its well at a lower rate, to baby it, and is monitoring for any falloff in performance. Fixes, if it declined, could possibly include conservation, or even digging another well.

“It’s a very significant issue for the city,” said Glenn Cutler, director of public works for the city of Port Angeles, in an interview. “It’s a very serious situation.”

In addition to inconsistent quality, the plant has also produced far less volume of treated water than expected. Harold Norlund, of Nippon, said the company so far has been willing to “look the other way” the few times it’s had to spend extra money on chemicals and cleaning screens at its own treatment plant. Nippon has taken water directly from the river, instead of from the Elwha Water Treatment Plant, when it hasn’t produced the promised volume of treated water needed.

Right now volumes of treated water are reduced to such an extent that Nippon is the only user receiving treated water. Like the city, fisheries workers at the state rearing channel are relying on well water. They are also making arrangements to rear fish in other locations if necessary. The tribal hatchery is relying on its groundwater well.

It’s not clear how long it’s going to take to fix the problems, what it’s going to cost taxpayers or when dam removal will resume.

“Right now, our focus is on the Elwha Water Facilities and ensuring that the EWF is capable of producing enough treated water for downstream users,” Brian Winter, project manager for the park service, wrote in an emailed response to questions.

The job won’t be getting any easier. Weakling winters two years in a row mean since dam removal began in September 2011 the plant has yet to manage very high flows — or the heavy sediment loads expected whenever dam removal begins again.

Only about 18 percent of the sediment expected to be released during Elwha dam removal has yet made it downstream.

The mother lode is still waiting. It’s stuck behind the last 60 feet of Glines Canyon Dam.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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