Abundant salmon runs could someday return to Eklutna River
Work advanced in May and June on removal of a concrete dam on the lower reaches of Eklutna River. Started last summer, de-construction of the dam is the first phase of a $7.5 million project initiated by The Conservation Fund, in partnership with Eklutna, Inc., to rebuild the salmon runs that once existed in the river before 1929 when the dam was built.
The 61-foot, concrete dam was part of a hydroelectric project that became obsolete with the completion of a 4-1/2-mile diversion tunnel from Eklutna Lake to the Knik River. The tunnel was part of a $32 million federal hydroelectric project (1951-55) still in operation today.
Since then the old dam has filled with river sediments and silt and has served no useful purpose.
The dam and adjacent property is owned by Eklutna, Inc., the largest private property owner within the Municipality of Anchorage. For many years the Native Village of Eklutna has been trying to increase salmon numbers in Eklutna River, and in 2002, launched a planning effort to remove the dam.
Coordinating the project is Brad Meiklejohn, Alaska state director of the Conservation Fund–a private and national non-profit organization. He says the dam removal is expected to be completed this summer, but it is only the first phase of a long-term project to ultimately rebuild salmon populations in the river.
“In the future we will also have to modify the upper dam at the outlet of Eklutna Lake, and perhaps build a fish ladder,” he says. “And long-term, we will have to work with a number of stakeholders to move the project forward.”
Along with Eklutna, Inc., major stakeholders include three power companies: Municipal Light and Power, Chugach Electric and Matanuska Electric Association; as well as the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility—all of which draw water from Eklutna Lake.
Other agencies and parties involved include U.S. Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the Alaska Dam Safety Program in the Department of Natural Resources and HDR, Inc., a global engineering consultant.
Meiklejohn mentions that Eklutna Construction and Maintenance, LLC, a subsidiary of Eklutna, Inc., is managing the site construction work.
“We have some Eklutna Inc. shareholders working on this project and they are very dedicated,” he says. “The idea of having abundant salmon in the river again, as it was for their grandparents and previous generations, means a lot to them.”
Getting started: In September 2016 the crew cleared a 1-1/2-acre site on the canyon rim near Eklutna Road, about a mile from the old Glenn Highway. A large crane with a 400-foot boom was then moved onto the site. Owned by Alaska Crane, Inc., it is the largest piece of equipment of its kind in Alaska.
“It took 40 flatbed truck loads to get the crane and ballast to the site,” Meiklejohn notes.
As part of the 2016 work the crane lowered bulldozers and skid-steer loaders onto the valley floor, where a work pad and helipad were cleared. A small camera mounted on the tip of the boom provides the operator with a visual of the canyon bottom. The operator is also in radio contact with workers below.
Finally, a 500-step aluminum staircase was built from near the canyon rim to the canyon floor.
Ongoing activities: Performing the dam deconstruction is Eklutna Construction and Maintenance, LLC. The dam will be broken apart and chunks will be moved to the side of the canyon. Sediment backed up behind the dam will be worked down by bulldozers and then allowed to drain downstream with the river’s natural flow.
“It will take a while for the river to reclaim itself naturally as the silt and sediment wash downstream,” Meiklejohn says. “But we knew going in that this is a long-term project.”
One of this summer’s key activities is construction of a small diversion dam about one-fourth mile upstream of the old dam site. To de-water the area around the old dam, water will be diverted around it in 36-inch-diameter, reinforced polyethylene tubing.
Meiklejohn says during the project’s peak activity this summer, about 30 people will be on site.
Dam mitigation: There were no laws requiring environmental protection or mitigation when the dam was built in 1929. But that changed in 1991 when the new hydroelectric facility was transferred to a consortium of electric utilities. The transfer triggered a 1991 agreement between the State of Alaska, municipal and private electric utilities, and federal and state resource agencies. The agreement required the new owners to mitigate damage to fish and wildlife caused by dams or other man-made structures. Under terms of the agreement, the owners had 30 years from the transfer to comply. That means rehabilitation must be initiated by 2022 and completed by 2027.
Since Eklutna Lake serves a major hydroelectric project and today constitutes about half of Anchorage’s water supply, a major issue in rebuilding salmon runs in the river system is securing an adequate flow of water. And even with the lower dam removed and additional water flowing downriver, full restoration would require a fish ladder or another way around the upper dam (spillway) at the lake’s outlet to allow fish passage into the lake for rearing.
About $6.3 million of the $7.5 million project is for dam removal, while the balance was for permitting and design, which included several technical studies. Along with Eklutna, Inc., major contributors to the project include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Orvis, Patagonia and Trout Unlimited.
“We realize there will be challenges as we move along on this project,” Meiklejohn says. “But we have already gathered support from many stakeholders and we’re confident that as time progresses, that support will grow. We will continue to look for more partners.”
Eklutna Inc. CEO Curtis McQueen is optimistic about the future of the project.
“Eklutna people have been good neighbors to industry throughout the years, and have been progressive as infrastructure has grown,” says McQueen. “We believe we’ve earned the right to have more water released into the watershed to re-build the salmon runs that existed 90 years ago. We believe there can be a balance between industry and fish, a natural resource. With open and clear communication, we can find common ground and eventually reach a mutually satisfying agreement with all the stakeholders involved.”
Ed. Note: A future ECHO News installment this summer will provide an update on deconstruction of the dam.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired grade school teacher.