Water Returns to Eklutna

Eklutna River will flow again with water release in September

Before September 2021, Lower Eklutna River experiences only a trickle of water. After the water release this month, the river will flow freely for the first time in 66 years. Photo by Ryan Peterson

For the first time in 66 years, the Eklutna River will run uninterrupted from its headwaters to the sea late this September.

The water release marks a significant milestone in the effort to restore the Eklutna River, or Idlughetnu in the Dena’ina language, and allow salmon to return to the river.

“We have waited a long time to see this day,” said Aaron Leggett, Chief of the Native Village of Eklutna. “It’s finally happening, and it feels so good. We had gotten so used to just a trickle of mud running through our village that we forgot how beautiful the river is. Since the dam came down in 2018, the river has once again been running clear. We notice, the salmon notice, and the bears notice.” The Native Village of Eklutna is the only traditional village within the Municipality of Anchorage.

History

Before: Until 2018, a dam blocked water from flowing to the Lower Eklutna River. The Native Village of Eklutna, with several partners, successfully had the dam removed in 2018. Photo by Ryan Peterson

For thousands of years, the river brought salmon to the Dena’ina people, for whom the land occupied by Anchorage is named. Then, in 1929, Anchorage’s first private electrical enterprise, Anchorage Light and Power, dammed the lower part of Eklutna River as part of a hydropower project.

“When [they] put that dam up, it literally put a firewall up of where fish could go,” Curtis McQueen, former CEO of Eklutna Inc. and current board member of the Rasmuson Foundation, said in a film produced by The Conservation Fund to promote the river restoration project. “No one cared about fish, no one cared about the river; it was all about commerce at the time. And we as a people were not an organized people.”

In 1955, the dam was abandoned when a new power project diverted the river out of its natural valley.

The Native Village of Eklutna led a five-year, $7.5 million effort to remove the Lower Eklutna River dam. With financing from The Conservation Fund and support by Eklutna Inc., the dam was removed in 2018.

“For us, it was like coming full circle,” McQueen said. “The ability to be the people that could actually take that dam down was not only healing for us, but it was a sense of pride.”

Restoration

Currently, the Eklutna River runs dry because an upstream dam at the outlet of Eklutna Lake diverts the water. Photo by Tyler Schwab

Despite the success of the dam removal project, the Eklutna River runs dry and devoid of water because an upstream dam at the outlet of Eklutna Lake diverts all the water out of the Eklutna River for hydropower generation.

“We always knew that removing the Lower Eklutna River dam was just the first step in a very long process,” said Brad Meiklejohn of The Conservation Fund. “It took a leap of faith to get to this point, but we stuck the landing.”

Eklutna Lake. Photo by Tyler Schwab

The water releases planned for September 2021, are part of an instream flow study that will help inform how to fix the river. Under an agreement signed in 1991, local electric utilities are now engaged with the Native Village of Eklutna and state and federal regulators to remedy the impacts of hydropower operations on the Eklutna River. That process, begun in 2020, is slated for completion by 2027.

A public celebration with members of the Eklutna River Restoration Coalition will be held on the banks of the Eklutna River at noon on September 18, 2021. For more details go to www.eklutnariver.org.

With the return of water to Eklutna River, the Native Village of Eklutna is one step closer to fulfilling its vision for the river, as stated in a 2019 resolution: “We are hopeful the salmon will return to us.”

“This is what the fish need: more water,” said Eric Booton of Trout Unlimited, which has helped raise awareness of the Eklutna River and helped support and fund some of the scientific research into how to fix the problems. “It’s almost a miracle that all five species of Alaska’s Pacific salmon have survived in the muddy trickle after all we’ve put the Eklutna River through over the past 66 years.”