Courtesy Quinault Nation
Highway 109 at Moclips on the Quinault Indian Nation, taken just before 10 a.m. on January 6.

Quinault Flooding: Before Clear-Cutting, Watershed Prevented Overflow

Richard Walker
1/12/15

In its natural state, before the logging and development and riprap, the Quinault River watershed worked like a finely tuned machine.

The north and east forks of the Quinault River flow from headwaters in the Olympic Mountains, meander through temperate rain forest and the Valley of a Thousand Waterfalls to Lake Quinault—where returning blueback salmon mature before they head upstream to spawn—and, finally, to the Pacific Ocean. The Quinault River and its tributaries nourish and drain a 188-square-mile watershed.

The river has changed since the time of the grandparents’ grandparents.

“Areas that were clear-cut changed river processes to a greater degree than did areas where only the largest trees were selectively cut,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported in a 2002 study. “After vegetation was removed … the river was free to migrate across the floodplain at a faster rate.”

The more rapidly migrating river “liberated large amounts of sediment that had been stored in bars, vegetated islands, and the floodplain,” the Bureau of Reclamation added.

To protect their homes and property from the force of the rapidly migrating river, riverfront landowners responded “by re-arranging or removing large woody debris and log jams in the river and placing cabled logs and rock riprap along the river bank to prevent erosion,” the Bureau of Reclamation reported. While this worked in some places, it had unanticipated effects downstream.

“In some cases, this has limited [salmon] habitat availability because entrances to side channels become blocked with fill or levees,” the Bureau reported.

Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp, who lives at Lake Quinault, said a century of manmade changes on the Quinault River have altered natural river dynamics and ecological processes, diminishing “the popular desire for watersheds to flood within their natural floodplains, and many of the fixes and proposed fixes only make matters worse.”

Sharp believes those modifications are partly responsible for flooding, road washouts and culvert failures that occurred during a storm on January 4–5. Several residents were evacuated, one elder was rescued from a car that stalled on a flooded road, and a school in Taholah was temporarily closed because of flooding. The Quinault Nation issued a disaster-area declaration, spurring the involvement of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“FEMA quickly responded and are working with staff to assess damage,” Sharp reported on January 7. “We sustained damage to a number of interior bridges and logging roads. Our offices and schools reopened today.”

The Quinault will work with FEMA over the next 30 days “to assess damages and financial impacts," Sharp said, adding that a meeting had been scheduled for January 14. "Our scientists and natural resource staff will be briefing us on environmental impacts. [We] will know more then.”

One thing Sharp knew as she issued the emergency declaration: Any response must address modifications that have made the river more hazardous during storms.

RELATED: Deluge Causes Flooding, Mudslides, State of Emergency on Quinault Reservation

A July 2011 environmental impact assessment, by the Quinault Nation and BIA, of Quinault’s restoration plans for the Upper Quinault River “preferred [the] alternative of installing engineered logjams and restorative planting of conifer and hardwood trees to meet the goals of improving river processes and salmon habitat.”

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