A year after a dam was removed, this river near Anchorage is still waiting for water

The removal of the lower Eklutna dam, pictured before and after its demolition, was finished last summer. (Photo by Loren Holmes / ADN)

Last summer, a conservation group teamed up with an Anchorage-area Native tribe to finish removing a defunct dam on the Eklutna River, northeast of the city.

That effort couldn’t succeed on its own, largely because higher upstream, utilities divert the river’s water into a hydroelectric power plant. The groups that removed the lower dam envisioned that their project would push the utilities into action to improve salmon habitat and boost a fishery that could bring together the Eklutna Native people, the original residents of the Anchorage area.

But now, a year later, there’s still only a trickle of water flowing through the canyon where the dam once stood.

Since its removal, the utilities have gotten an early start on a legally mandated process to address some of the damage to fish and wildlife habitat caused by the upstream hydroelectric project. But that process begins with a study phase – no concrete steps are required until 2027.

Brad Meiklejohn, who spearheaded the $7.5 million dam removal for a group called the Conservation Fund, is pushing the utilities to act more quickly. The status quo, Meiklejohn said, is “subsidizing cheap power on the backs of Natives and salmon.”

“That’s the cost we’ve externalized here,” he said. “To keep postponing this, and keep having the fish and the Native people pay the price because of our lack of innovation and creativity – I think that’s criminal.”

Brad Meiklejohn, who works in Alaska with a group called the Conservation Fund, spearheaded the dam removal project. (Photo by Loren Holmes / ADN)

The lower Eklutna dam was built in the 1920s to supply power to Anchorage, but it was shut down when the federal government built the much larger project at Eklutna Lake, far upstream, in the 1950s.

The federal project was a major undertaking driven by the scarcity of power in Anchorage – in the 1940s, the city resorted to generating some of its power with the stern half of the Sackett’s Harbor, a shipwrecked tanker. The Eklutna project required hundreds of workers and construction of a four-and-a-half-mile tunnel through a mountain, which brings the lake water to the site of the project’s two generators.

In 1997, the project was transferred by the federal government to three utilities. One was Municipal Light and Power, Anchorage’s publicly owned utility, and the other two were cooperatives – Matanuska Electric Association, and Chugach Electric Association, which serves the Anchorage area.

Today, the project generates 175,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year, or enough for 25,000 homes, according to a new informational website created by the utilities.

That’s less than 5 percent of the power used by the Railbelt, which runs from the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks. But it’s among the cheapest energy sources for the region, which makes it more valuable to the utilities.

Eklutna Lake is also the source of about 90 percent of Anchorage’s drinking water. But that amounts to just 10 percent of the water that’s diverted from the river, according to the utilities; the remaining 90 percent goes to generate electricity.

Meiklejohn said he doesn’t want to interfere with the city’s drinking water supply. But he estimates that just 10 percent of the diverted water would be needed to support salmon spawning, with minimal impacts to power costs.

“I think it’s a solvable problem. I think there’s enough water to allow some to go into the river for the fish,” he said. “And I would love to see the utilities get a little more proactive on this, and get some of their best and brightest minds working on a solution.”

The lower dam’s removal was a four-year effort that finished last year — Meiklejohn’s organization partnered with the Eklutna people to do the work, hiring Eklutna Inc., their Alaska Native village corporation, as the contractor.

In interviews, officials who work with the utilities said that they’re committed to addressing the impacts of the upstream hydroelectric project. But, they said, they also have obligations to their members and customers, and they want the studies to happen first to help guide their actions.

“We have to understand what the tradeoffs are,” said Bill Falsey, the municipal manager for Anchorage, whose public utility owns 53 percent of the hydroelectric project. “We’re not going to know what policy option makes the most sense until we have really run all the scenarios.”

The hydroelectric project drains out of the lake through a tunnel in the bottom, and utility officials said it could also cost money to reconfigure their infrastructure to send water down the river. And, Falsey added, “it’s not even a known quantity what it will take to get fish to return.”

“That’s what this is about,” he said. “That’s why we are engaged in these studies.”

As part of the project’s transfer from the federal government to the utilities, they were not required to get an operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Environmental reviews and restrictions that could have accompanied the licensing process were replaced by an eight-page agreement that the new owners signed with federal agencies.

The 1991 agreement, which is enforceable by federal court, requires the utilities to begin studying fish and wildlife impacts of the hydroelectric project no later than 25 years after the purchase took effect in 1997, or 2022.

The utilities started the study process this summer, three years earlier than the agreement requires. But actions to address the impacts identified by the studies are not required to start until 2027, and they don’t have to be finished until 2032.

The agreement ultimately asks the utilities to deliver draft recommendations to the governor. The governor is then charged with adopting a formal plan that balances “efficient and economical power generation” and energy conservation with fish and wildlife, recreation, water supplies and “other beneficial public uses.”

Critics point out that the agreement contains no protections for the Eklutna people, and doesn’t reference them whatsoever.

In an interview, Aaron Leggett, president of the Native Village of Eklutna, said tribal members have gotten used to being patient. But he said he also sees the story of the lower dam’s removal as being too compelling to ignore, which leaves him “optimistic.”

“I think at the end of the day, we’ll get there,” he said. “We’re at the point where, at a minimum, we know we’ve taken the dam out. And to us, that’s something to be celebrated.”

More than half of Eklutna’s tribal members live in or near the Anchorage area, Leggett said. And reviving a salmon run in their community, he added, could help unify them.

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