To restore its namesake river, the Native Village of Eklutna has begun advocating for the complete removal of the dam at Eklutna Lake. The village has won over Anchorage Assembly leaders, environmental interests and other key parties.
The electric utilities that control the dam are backing a much more modest plan. They’re obligated to try to make good on old promises for repairing a river system where salmon used to be abundant. But the dam, located in the Chugach Mountains about 24 miles northeast of the Anchorage Bowl, has enabled the generation of cheap, renewable electricity for about 25,000 Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna Borough homes for decades.
What will happen to the dam and river is still up for debate, with a public comment period now open.
Samatha Owen is the lead technical expert hired by the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project owners – Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association, and the city-owned Anchorage Hydropower Utility – to fulfill obligations laid out in a 1991 agreement. Her team has produced thousands of pages of work, culminating in a draft plan it published in October.
That included scientific analysis of things like in-stream flow modeling, habitat-flow relationship modeling for different salmon species, how different types of ice impact salmon eggs, and their preferred gravel sizes.
Owen has summarized it in about 30 minutes, at a series of public hearings last week in Palmer, Anchorage and Eagle River. Here’s the short version: Build $57 million of new infrastructure to divert about 10% of the water that collects in Eklutna Lake so it can flow down the Eklutna River.
According to Owen and her team’s models, this maximizes the gain in salmon habitat on the river, while minimizing the pain inflicted on utility customers and taxpayers in Anchorage, which also gets most of its drinking water from the lake.
“It maintains Eklutna Hydro as a year-round resource,” she said. “It protects the public water supply. It indirectly benefits all the wildlife that depend on the salmon and avoids impacts to recreation, minimizes cost to ratepayers and taxpayers, minimizes increases in carbon emissions, and we believe achieves an equitable balance of costs, benefits and impacts.”
But the The Native Village of Eklutna and two federal wildlife agencies who signed the 1991 agreement say the utilities’ plan simply doesn’t fulfill a key goal of that agreement: to let fish run all the way from the ocean, up 12 miles of river and into old spawning habitat in the lake and its tributaries.
That’s because the utilities’ proposed diversion infrastructure begins below the surface of the lake and comes out downstream of the Eklutna River’s original headwaters, leaving about 1 mile of the river dry.
The village’s president, Aaron Leggett, is not a fan of the utilities’ plan. At a joint meeting with the Anchorage Assembly in December, he said it fits into a legacy of disregard of the Eklutna Dena’ina people. Business interests first dammed the river in the 1920s for power generation.
“It goes without saying that the Native Village of Eklutna and the Native people of the area were not consulted nor did they get any direct benefit from this individual who built the dam on the middle of the river,” Leggett said.
Before the dam, salmon were intertwined with Eklutna’s culture and economy. They could be again, Leggett said.
“The Eklutna River has been broken for 94 years,” he said. “The Native people and the salmon have been largely neglected. We believe it’s our time to fix the river, and we believe it’s our turn.”
Lee Stephan, an Eklutna elder and longtime board member of the village corporation Eklutna, Inc., said it’s been hard to maintain the cultural ties between fish and his family.
“Most of my life, as an adult, I have to take my kids down to Kenai, Deep Creek, Homer, out of Whitter,” Stephan said. “That’s where we get our fish.”
“Restoring the river is beyond essential,” he said.
The village is now proposing complete removal of the dam in the next 10 years, buying time to replace the reduced hydropower capacity. And the village says nonprofit partners have pledged to cover the removal costs. One of those partners, The Conservation Fund, paid for the removal of an old, abandoned dam farther downriver in 2018.
Supporters of fully removing the dam higher up say the river could one day rival the Kenai as a salmon fishery. That would benefit all of Anchorage, Leggett said.
Now, it’s the public’s turn to weigh in. The Eklutna Hydropower owners are taking public comment on the draft plan until Feb. 19 by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available at EklutnaHydro.com.
Publication of a revised, final plan is set for April. The governor must review all of the work, try to reconcile differences and ultimately decide what happens by an Oct. 2 deadline.
Alaska Public Media’s Matt Faubion contributed to this report.