The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
An Eklutna River dam removal project helped the famed Southcentral Alaska river’s salmon runs. But there is a push for more work to further help the fish’s spawning route. (RYAN PETERSON)
BY ERIC BOOTON
Three years ago, the Eklutna River garnered national recognition because of the removal of an abandoned dam that was blocking salmon migration from Cook Inlet to their historic spawning habitat upstream.
With any luck, 2021 will be another monumental year for Southcentral Alaska’s Eklutna when, for the first time in 66 years, a second upstream hydroelectric project will intentionally allow water to flow down the river.
For decades, miles of the Eklutna – a historic salmon stream – have run dry. Devoid of water and devoid of fish, the streambed has been left to the whims of encroaching vegetation. A salmon stream without water. It’s an odd conundrum, isn’t it?
SACRED SALMON WATERS
Traditionally known as Idlughetnu, the Eklutna River is the namesake of the Native village of Eklutna. For millennia the river’s salmon nourished village residents and strengthened deep cultural ties to the area. But in 1929, the tribe’s deep- rooted ties to the river and its valuable salmon resources were compromised by the construction of the first in a series of hydroelectric development projects that disrupted access to critical habitat for spawning fish, diverted the river’s entire flow out of the watershed, and tipped the scales of the area’s fragile ecosystem. Put simply, the river’s spigot was shut off, halting the flow of water and cutting off rich and productive Eklutna Lake from Cook Inlet and the sea.
When the water abruptly stopped flowing, salmon stopped returning and people came instead. Today, the Eklutna River Valley is a favorite of residents in the Anchorage and Wasilla area who frequent Eklutna Lake Campground in Chugach State Park, where outdoor recreation abounds year-round.
Alaskans are intimately familiar with the trails, peaks, and inspiring vistas, but wild salmon in the upper reaches of the Eklutna River are a distant memory. Few of the visitors attracted to the
area’s offerings are knowledgeable of its history, the impaired condition of the river, and the opportunity to restore salmon to this once-vital river.
UNBLOCKING SALMON WATERS
The clash between dams and salmon is nothing new and is easily understood: When you block access to habitat important to any species, it will falter. The impacts dams have had on the diminishing health of fisheries throughout the Lower 48 is staggering and has spurred a growing trend of removing troublesome barriers.
So far, the results of efforts to liberate rivers constrained by concrete and steel have been encouraging and measurable. When given a fighting chance, salmon are resilient and will return. The resurgence of the Elwha River in Washington, where a dam removal and rebound shined a spotlight on the positive outcomes that
are possible, has become well known amongst wild fish advocates and was a direct inspiration for many Alaskans to take aim at the abandoned lower Eklutna dam.
With the lower dam now removed, a 61-foot-high concrete excuse no longer looms. Access to the upper river has been granted. Now, returning water to the river and restoring access to Eklutna Lake for fish are top priorities for bringing this river back to life.
Of course, water in Eklutna Lake is spoken for. While 90 percent of the water is diverted to fuel the waiting turbines at the Eklutna Power Plant, those turbines contribute less than 5 percent of the electricity to the grid before being released at the Eklutna Tailrace and into the Knik River.
The remaining 10 percent of the water accounts for roughly 90 percent of the Municipality of Anchorage’s fresh fresh water supply. Zero water makes it down the river channel to maintain the health of the downstream fisheries and ecosystem, leaving salmon to struggle.
HOW TO FIX A PROBLEM
Conveniently, the window for change is opening at this very moment. The owners of the remaining Eklutna Hydropower Project have an obligation to mitigate – make up for – the project’s impact on fish and wildlife, and have initiated the process for determining what changes are necessary.
Studies are being developed and implemented to provide a deeper understanding of the river, fish habitat and ways the water could be managed to allow salmon and trout to recolonize the Eklutna and once again return in abundance.
As part of these studies, a series of brief and controlled events are being planned to allow water to flow down the natural channel this fall to collect data that will help better understand the impacts of future streamflows, steps we can take to restore the river and what might be necessary for salmon to return.
These study flows won’t be enough to bring back salmon by themselves, but the results from the studies will help identify ways the project owners can fulfill their obligation to make up for the project’s negative impacts.
HELPING A GOOD CAUSE
There is a solution to this problem, and Alaskans can be a part of it. Learn more about the removal of the abandoned dam on the Eklutna and the restoration of the Eklutna River at eklutnariver.org, and voice your support for a river in need at eklutnariver.org/get-involved. ASJ
Editor’s note: Eric Booton is the Eklutna Project Manager for Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program. Go to tu.org/tu-programs/ alaska for more information.