Updated: 24 minutes ago Posted: 24 minutes ago
This fall, for the first time in nearly a century, the water from Lake Eklutna was able to follow its historic path along the Eklutna River and into Cook Inlet. The owners of the Upper Eklutna dam (Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association and Municipal Light and Power) released water from the dam on Lake Eklutna for just over three weeks. The temporary water release was part of a scientific study to determine an action plan to mitigate the project’s impact on fish and wildlife. The agreement between the federal government and the utility companies that purchased the Eklutna hydroelectric project from them legally requires owners to begin implementing a governor-approved mitigation plan to address the impacts of the upper dam d ‘by 2027.
With the temporary return of water, the Eklutna River once again made headlines for the second time in recent memory. In 2018, the river made headlines across the country following the removal of the former Lower Eklutna dam further downstream that had been abandoned, blocking salmon migration since the 1950s. The removal effort was led by Eklutna, Inc., the Eklutna Indigenous Village and Conservation Fund, and supported by a $ 7.5 million fundraising effort. After the dam was removed, adult and juvenile salmon were seen in the Eklutna River upstream from the old dam removal site. These fish were determined to reach their original spawning grounds, even though there was not enough water to support the journey. The permanent return of water to the Eklutna River is the next step in ensuring that these fish can return to Eklutna Lake.
The Eklutna River has historically supported robust populations of the five species of wild Pacific salmon which are of considerable importance to the livelihood and culture of the Eklutna people. As a result of the construction of the lower dam in 1929, which blocked the passage of fish and fractured the river system, and the second dam at the Eklutna lake outlet in 1955, which diverted water from the river and stopped the flow, the salmon struggled and returned in very small numbers, barely existing. Residents of the indigenous village of Eklutna have suffered the loss of salmon, the majority of which only recently had a first glimpse of what an Eklutna river could offer them.
For those who have been closely involved in the mitigation process, advocating for the restoration of the river, the temporary water release has been a success. Sediment that had accumulated prior to the lower dam was carried downstream by running water, various salmon habitats reappeared, and no impacts were observed on downstream bridges or other infrastructure.
The only downside to releasing water was knowing that the valve at the lake outlet would close and the river would dry up again. The flows were minimal and their duration short, but with them we got a glimpse of the possible future for the Eklutna River, a future that begins with permanent flows and the return of salmon to Eklutna Lake.
This winter, the owners of the upper dam will review the data collected during the first year of research and draft plans for a second year of field studies. They will seek feedback from interested parties before proposing mitigation measures that will be publicly reviewed and approved by parties to the mitigation agreement, which includes the state of Alaska, utilities and a handful. federal agencies. Now is the time for us to work together to create a healthy future for the Eklutna River for all Alaskans.
Aaron Leggett is president of the indigenous village of Eklutna. Kyle foster is CEO of Eklutna, Inc. Curtis McQueen is a former CEO of Eklutna, Inc. Eric Booton is Eklutna Project Manager for Trout Unlimited. Brad Meiklejohn is the Alaska State’s director of the Conservation Fund. Kyla kosednar is director of advocacy for the Alaska Center.
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