Water releases down the Eklutna River in Southcentral Alaska will allow the river to run uninterrupted from its headwaters to the sea for the first time in 66 years.
The project is a long-time goal of the Native Village of Eklutna, the only traditional village within the municipality of Anchorage. It is a goal that tribal members have waited a long time to see, said village chief Aaron Leggett.
“We had gotten so used to just a trickle of mud running through our village that we forgot how beautiful the river is,” he said. “Since the dam came down in 2018, the river has once again been running clear. We notice, the salmon notice, and the bears notice.”
“This is what the fish need, more water,” said Eric Booton, of Trout Unlimited, which helped raise awareness of the Eklutna River and helped fund some of the scientific research into how to fix the problem. “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.”
Water releases in September are part of an instream flow study to help provide further information on how to fix the river, which was compromised back in 1929 with construction of the Lower Eklutna River dam to provide Anchorage with its first major power source. Despite the success of the dam removal project, the 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.
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.
According Booton, the project manager, the lower dam never quite operated as planned since its reservoir filled quickly with sediment. It was abandoned in the 1950s when a larger power project at Eklutna Lake diverted all the water out of the Eklutna River.
The Eklutna River was the focus of a five-year, $7.5 million dam removal project completed in 2018 by the Native Village of Eklutna, Eklutna Inc. and The Conservation Fund. The project involved a number of funders, including the Rasmuson Foundation, Resources Legacy Fund, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Mat-Su Salmon Partnership, Orvis, Patagonia and the Alaska Community Foundation.
“All of the hard work is finally paying off,” said Curtis McQueen, former chief executive office of Eklutna Inc., and a current Rasmuson Foundation board member. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting form to see this river come back to life. Once people see how beautiful the Eklutna River is, everyone will fall in love with it.”