Eklutna hydro owners say they won’t extend wildlife restoration process

A narrow lake among snow-capped mountains
Eklutna Lake is tucked into the Chugach Mountains not far from Anchorage. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

Utilities have rejected the Anchorage Assembly’s request for a two-year extension to the planning process for restoring fish habitat to at least some of the long-dammed Eklutna River.

The owners of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project say they want a plan that all stakeholders can agree on, but they also want to stick to the deadline to get that plan to the governor in April.

It’s the latest development in a complicated, years-long process that will determine how much of Eklutna Lake will go to fish, power generation and drinking water.

Todd Glass is a lawyer for the Eklutna hydro owners and he said there’s no need to delay the process.

“We’re not rushing to judgment. We have not excluded anybody. You have heard us multiple times,” he said while briefing the Chugach Electric Association board of directors on Monday. “We have appeared before the municipal Assembly 11 times during this process and this has been deliberate.”

In October, the owners unveiled a draft plan to build $57 million of new infrastructure to divert some water that collects in Eklutna Lake down the Eklutna River, which has been mostly dry since it was first dammed in the 1920s. The owners say this option restores fish habitat while minimizing impacts to power generation, the city’s primary drinking water supply, ratepayers and recreation. These interests all must be considered and balanced in the final plan under a deal struck in 1991 to help privatize the then-federally owned hydropower project. 

However, a mile of the river near the old headwaters would remain dry, and fish wouldn’t be able to reach the lake and its tributaries. 

The Anchorage Assembly had asked for a 2-year pause and reset through a resolution it passed unanimously on Feb. 2. Glass, the lawyer, said he’s not sure that’s even possible. That leaves the Assembly and other stakeholders with fundamental objections to the draft plan little time for further negotiation, and little recourse but federal court. 

The Assembly is supporting the Native Village of Eklutna and its environmental allies, who want to remove the dam. The owners’ technical experts studied 36 different options, but not dam removal – that’s part of what prompted the Assembly’s extension request. Village officials say environmental nonprofits have committed to pay for the dam removal, and it could lead to the return of huge salmon runs and broad economic benefits.

The Assembly’s resolution says the owners’ proposed plan has technical problems and procedural shortcomings. And while the city is supposed to pay for about a fifth of the cost of the plan, the Assembly said it will withhold funding if the plan doesn’t restore the full length of the river. 

The owners group is Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association and an Anchorage municipal enterprise that answers to Mayor Dave Bronson – who is at odds with the Assembly and the city’s official policy

On Monday, the owners group contested the Assembly’s criticisms and characterizations on legal and technical grounds in a 16-page letter.

“In the public statements that were made during the meeting, we found some things – incorrect, factual legal assertions that we needed to correct,” Glass said.

He said that under the 1991 agreement, the owners only have to mitigate the hydropower project’s wildlife impacts from when it was built in 1955. At that point, he said fish runs on the Eklutna River had already been eliminated by a separate, lower river dam that was built in the 1920s. 

“And to be clear, we understand and fully acknowledge the consequential impacts of all of the hydro development in the river along the way,” Glass said. “It’s just that what we are actually required to do is something less than full restoration of the Eklutna basin for all of the damage that was done over the last 100 years. We never owned the lower dam. The dams were not part of what we bought in ‘97. And so, to confer upon us the liability and cost and responsibility for something that we never owned is something different.”

The Conservation Fund paid for the removal of the abandoned lower dam in 2018. 

Assembly leaders on the matter could not be reached for comment.

Still, the owners group says it is now evaluating the dam removal proposal in earnest. Their lead technical expert, Samantha Owen, shared some initial analysis with the Chugach board on Monday. 

She said if the dam had not been in place in the past, then the drinking water demands of the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, or AWWU, would exhaust the river. 

A graph estimating Eklutna River flow rates if there were no dam
The Eklutna Hydroelectric Project owners’ lead technical expert shared this graph estimating Eklutna River flow rates if there were no dam from 2011-2020 at a Chugach Electric Association board meeting on Feb. 12, 2024.

“Basically, AWWU would have had to make a decision: Either curtail their water withdrawals, or dry the river,” Owen said. 

And if AWWU pulled as much water as it is legally allowed to, she said the river would run dry for weeks at a time most winters. That’s based on a decade of Eklutna water data and flow rate models previously developed to evaluate the other options.

a graph estimating average Eklutna River flow rates if there were no dam and the water utility drew its full water right
The Eklutna Hydroelectric Project owners’ lead technical expert shared this graph estimating average Eklutna River flow rates if there were no dam and the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility drew its full water right at a Chugach Electric Association board meeting on Feb. 12, 2024.

AWWU also shared some of its initial concerns with the dam removal concept. It said it knows of no other practical alternatives that could replace what it draws from Eklutna Lake. AWWU is also concerned about how natural variability in a restored river’s flow could negatively affect its infrastructure and water quality. 

Public comment closes on the owners’ draft plan on Feb. 19. 

While dam removal was not one of the options considered in the draft plan, Owen said of the hundreds of public comments reviewed so far, most fall into pro- and anti-dam removal buckets. She said about half were copy-and-pasted form letters from out of state supporting dam removal. Among the comments that weren’t form letters, she said opinion on dam removal was about evenly split. 

The owners group said it is still hopeful differences can be resolved in the revised plan bound for the governor. In a closed door session, Chugach’s board got a sneak peek. Afterwards, Board President Sam Cason said they challenged Owen’s team to come up with a plan that all parties can accept. 

Aaron Leggett, president of the Native Village of Eklutna, said he thinks that is possible. 

“But it’s going to take time and cooperation from both sides,” he said. 

He still hopes to persuade the owners to give the process more time. 

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him at jhsieh@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremy here.

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