Quileute project to help river, fish — and surrounding community

With the efforts of the Quileute Tribe and partners, a series of structures have sprung up around the lower Quillayute River this summer.

The placement of the wooden, roughly star-shaped structures—with logs sticking out of the soil and roots bristling where rising waters can swirl around them—is no accident. The engineered logjams are part of a project intended to reduce flood risk in the village of La Push and improve valuable salmon habitat through a process known as “stream training.” The restoration approach uses natural processes to encourage the river energy to move away from sensitive banks that need protection and toward underused floodplains, transforming that river energy into fish habitat.

The tribe used logjams and channel excavation to stream train the Quillayute this summer in the project called the Reach 3 restoration.

Quileute water quality biologist Nicole Rasmussen said the effort—explored here in a video produced by the tribe and Wild Salmon Center—will encourage a less harmful route for the river, to protect the surrounding infrastructure and habitat. 

“The river wants to heal itself after years of wood being removed and habitat being altered,” she said. 

Fed by four river systems, the Quillayute’s 625-square-mile watershed is home to 23 distinct salmon runs, including steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon . The health of the Quillayute is crucial to its dependent river systems, the people living nearby and the salmon that live, feed and spawn there.

Over the last couple of decades, the river has shifted. To the south, the bank has lost 44 acres of land in the last two decades, threatening a culturally important site known as Thunder Field, turning a vast field into little more than a parking area. To the north, the shift imperils Mora Road, a crucial road for reaching and maintaining the jetty that protects La Push from storm surges, as well as popular beach access within Olympic National Park.

In 2019, the tribe received a grant to conduct a geomorphic study to evaluate the habitat conditions and restoration potential of the Quillayute River. One of the key findings was that the Quillayute River is severely lacking large wood, which is vital for healthy salmon habitat. Out of that study came an action plan for the tribe and contributing partners, which includes a series of projects that can be implemented at the reach scale. The Quileute Tribe started with the Reach 3 project and will continue restoration work up the river. 

Using logs harvested and donated by the tribe as part of the Move to Higher Ground Initiative, the Quileute Natural Resources Department began installing logjams this summer and expects to be done by mid-October. The structures, which are anchored with substrate from the floodplain and will have vegetation planted around them, vary in size but have two purposes: deflect the flow of the Quillayute River away from eroding banks and into floodplains, and provide fish-friendly habitat. 

Habitat restoration biologist Caroline Walls said the wood will help the river flow into more beneficial areas, and is a more ecologically friendly material than placing riprap on eroding banks.

Wood is also a boon for fish. It provides protective structures for them to hide from predators, encourages development of deep pools for fish to rest in, and attracts insects for them to snack on.

“Wood is a natural part of a healthy river system,” Walls said. “We’re working with the river and healing the river.”

Fifty-three structures in all will be installed, including 40 smaller structures in the floodplains and 13 in the main river channel. More than 1,200 logs were provided by the tribe for the project, which also entails excavating floodplain paths so the river can better “find” those routes.

The project will be carefully monitored after its completion this fall. Funding was provided through grants from Washington Coast River Resiliency Initiative, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Above: Quileute Tribe water quality biologist Nicole Rasmussen (left) and habitat restoration biologist Caroline Walls confer at the site of the tribe’s Reach 3 restoration project in July. Story and photo: Trevor Pyle