The Eklutna River, near Anchorage, flows continuously into Cook Inlet, without a dam blocking its passage, for the first time in nearly a century.
Water from the river has been diverted since 1929, first to generate electricity and later to double as the primary source of drinking water for Anchorage residents.
But the river, largely dry for decades, was brought to life on September 13.
On that day, the utilities that own a hydroelectric project at Lake Eklutna opened a small drainage valve, intentionally supplying water to the river for the first time.
The Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association, and the municipality’s Anchorage Hydroelectric Service will stop the release on October 6.
The effort is part of a study by utilities that will help determine if they should supply the river with year-round water, and if so, at what levels.
For residents of the Indigenous village of Eklutna, near the mouth of the river 25 miles northeast of downtown Anchorage, the river’s rebirth was a milestone.
They want the 12-mile-long waterway to be permanently restored, along with the salmon that their late elders described as plentiful.
Lee Stephan, a chieftain from the village, said he visited the river a few days after it started to flow. It stretched about 30 feet wide a bit below the lake, mostly blue but graying as it picked up silt. Getting to this moment involved a lot of collaboration, including from the utilities, he said.
“Dreams come true,” Stephan said.
Return of the salmon
A private developer built a dam on the lower reaches of the Eklutna river the year the Great Depression began, at the base of a 400-foot canyon.
The 65-foot concrete wall helped provide electricity to a young Anchorage. It cut the river about 4 river miles from its mouth.
Three years ago, the Eklutna Tribal Government and the Alaska Native Village Corporation, as well as The Conservation Fund, detonated and removed that roadblock. It cost $ 7.5 million.
[For 89 years, a dam blocked salmon on the Eklutna River. It’s finally gone.]
The salmon have found themselves further upstream since the withdrawal, said Ron Benkert, a south-central regional supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Last year, Benkert and another biologist documented three juvenile silver salmon a mile upstream from the old dam, he said.
The little fish had sailed through what was left of the river at that time: a stream through which a person could often jump, sometimes a few inches deep, Benkert said. It was fed by an occasional small tributary, snowmelt and rain.
“This is great news,” Benkert said of the salmon. “They are occupying new breeding habitat with the removal of this dam.”
Getting rid of the dam was a step in reclaiming the river, said Aaron Leggett, chairman of the Eklutna tribal government.
The recent release of water is more of an advancement, he said. It is a sight that today’s tribal members have not seen.
“It’s a big deal. The village is where it is because of this river, ”he said.
Final price to be decided in 2024
In 1955, the federal government created the Eklutna Lakeside Hydroelectric Project, increasing hydropower in the region. It features an embankment dam, a 4.5 mile long tunnel through a mountain, and a power station along the Knik River.
This project cut off the main source of water to the river, except for overflows from the lake every several years, often after heavy rains. He left Thunderbird Creek as the river’s only significant and constant source of water, approximately 3 miles from the mouth.
Utilities and the municipality bought the Eklutna hydroelectric project in 1997 for $ 6 million. It provides about 6% of their generated electricity, powering about 25,000 homes per year, they say.
The purchase came with a catch.
An agreement with the federal government and the state required that utilities, no later than 2022, begin a process to study and propose ways to reduce the project’s impacts on fish and wildlife.
The effort began in 2019. Utilities met with state and federal agencies, the Eklutna tribe, conservation groups, and other interested groups. They created a website detailing the effort.
“We’re trying to make the process as inclusive and transparent as possible,” said Samantha Owen, who manages the effort for utilities through her job with engineering firm McMillen Jacobs Associates.
Studies began this summer. They look at potential fish habitat, landscape changes caused by the flowing river, and other impacts.
Utilities have spent around $ 3 million on the process so far, said Julie Hasquet, spokesperson for Chugach Electric.
After more studies next year, utilities will develop proposals to protect and enhance fish and wildlife resources, the agreement says. They will also take into account comments from the public.
The governor of Alaska will approve a final plan in 2024, which will begin in 2027.
To protect the lake’s wide public uses, the governor must give equal consideration to many factors, such as efficient power generation, municipal water supply, and recreational opportunities such as trails, the agreement says.
Balancing catering with energy demand
Many participants believe that returning water to the river is the best way to improve fishing and wildlife opportunities, Owen said.
But that option is not required in the deal, she said.
Supply the river with water, if this path is chosen, will come at a price, she said. Less water in the lake means less water for hydropower, typically the cheapest form of electricity in south-central Alaska.
“I don’t think anyone wants to affect the city’s water supply,” she said. “So, ipso facto, the water must come from hydropower generation.”
“Everything is more expensive than Eklutna (electricity), so there will be an associated cost to the taxpayer,” she said.
Members of the Eklutna tribe and environmental groups hope the lake can meet all competing uses.
Brad Meiklejohn, director of The Conservation Fund for Alaska, said hydroelectric production could be reduced if lake water fed into the river. If so, he hopes other forms of renewable energy will replace it one day.
“I view salmon as our ultimate renewable resource,” he said.
Benkert, of Fish and Game, said the release could help scientists determine how much water is needed to feed the salmon. Utilities will also consider the economic cost of losing that water.
Benkert wants to see salmon someday venture across the river, he said.
“I think all the actors involved think that water in the river is the best solution,” he said.
He represents Fish and Game on a technical working group that helps shape the studies and will contribute to a final proposal.
“But whether it’s doable is something we need to consider when developing the proposal,” Benkert said.
“It brings back life”
When utilities opened the lake’s drainage valve, they initially opened the equivalent of six Olympic-size swimming pools per hour.
They reduced that amount every few days, so scientists could consider a range of flows and their impact on the waterway.
As the release began, the first trickles of water slowly slid into the riverbed, a trickle that grew stronger. Water crept through rocks and mud like an ocean wave along a beach, as shown in a September 13 video filmed by the Eklutna tribe.
The water first traveled about 1 mph, Owen said. It took about 12 hours to reach the mouth of the river.
More than a week after liberation, the river was flowing steadily, stretching perhaps 25 or 30 feet wide on average, said Meiklejohn, a longtime river watcher who lives near Eagle River.
The channel changes daily, he said.
The water pushes rocks downstream and knocks down trees growing along the dry banks, he said. He broke through the beaver dams and washed away huge amounts of silt that had accumulated behind the old dam.
“It’s like watching geology happen,” he said.
Maria Coleman, vice president of the tribal government, said she saw the river flow for the first time on a Facebook video.
The return of the water brought shared joy to Eklutna. It feels like the tribesmen are coping well with their late elders who wanted it restored, she said.
“It brings life back,” she said.