For over 60 years, the Eklutna River north of Anchorage has been dammed, choking the runs of salmon that have fed generations of Dena’ina in the area.
Before the dam was built, for hundreds of years, the area surrounding Lake Eklutna was populated by the Dena’ina people. Curtis McQueen says the inhabitants were originally more nomadic.
“They settled these lands here and never left due to the rich abundance of habitat in this area,” Curtis McQueen said of the originally nomadic Dena’ina. McQueen is the former CEO of Eklutna Inc., the tribe’s for-profit company.
“And the Eklutna River, which was a massive, raging river back then, has – and still has – all five species of salmon, which isn’t… a lot of rivers don’t have all five.”
McQueen is Tlingit, but was officially adopted by the Eklutna people. When working with the tribe, he said he had heard stories about the wealth of the river.
“We recently lost an elder named Alberta Stephan,” said McQueen. “Alberta was our historian, and she was talking about when she was a little girl over there at the mouth where literally they could walk on the backs of salmon. And it was a massive flow, and there were no mortgages, houses, or cars. Everything they needed was here.
Fish were their main source of food. It was until the construction of the Lower River Hydroelectric Dam in the 1920s that provided Anchorage with its first major source of power. McQueen says it didn’t work for long.
“The challenge was that when they built it in the canyon, it would fill up with silt very quickly,” McQueen said. “And so they were constantly working on him. And as Anchorage grew they needed more power, that became a problem.
The lower dam disappeared in the 1950s when the federal government chose to build a larger dam project further up the river. But the lower dam continued to fill with sediment for decades, blocking the course of the river.
That was until 2018, when, with the support of the Indigenous Village of Eklutna and Eklutna Inc., the nonprofit Environmental Conservation Fund raised $ 7.5 million to demolish the lower dam. The whole process took about five years.
Earlier this month (September), tribal and environmental advocates saw the first water flow into the river in decades.
“For the first time in 66 years, the thirsty river of Eklutna is finally getting a drink of water,” said Eric Booton, Trout Unlimited project manager, as the crowd cheered.
The tribal president of the indigenous village of Eklutna, Aaron Leggett, was part of the celebration. He says he is grateful for the work that has been done so far to get the river flowing.
“Our ultimate goal is to restore the salmon runs that have supported us for hundreds of years,” said Leggett.
There is still work to be done to ensure that the river can support a salmon run. Lake Eklutna provides 90 percent of Anchorage’s drinking water, so the water release must be balanced.
Austin Williams is Legal and Policy Director at Trout Unlimited.
“The question here is how much water and what needs to be done to ensure that the salmon returning to the Eklutna River can spawn, raise and support a healthy fishery,” said Williams.
In the early 1990s, electric utilities agreed to participate in studies to examine the impacts of dams and how to protect and enhance salmon runs in the Eklutna River. Booton with Trout Unlimited says these studies are ongoing.
“The study plans that they will do it for two years in order to obtain the data necessary to arrive at the mitigation results,” Booton said. “At this point, they’re almost done with the first year of collecting this data and there will be a second year in 2022 to collect this information as well.”
As different groups continue to work on the sequel, McQueen with Eklutna Inc. says there is still much to celebrate and enjoy with a flowing river.
“I want to camp here tonight. I would sleep very hard listening to that, ”McQueen said. “Whether you are on a beach or on a river, there is nothing that relaxes the human mind more than hearing the water move. It’s incredible.”
This story misspelled Aaron Leggett’s last name. It has been corrected.