Anchorage residents know the Eklutna Tailrace as a productive fishing spot that's easy to get to. But Daily News photographer Bob Hallinen, whose photos are featured today, was struck by something else -- the carcasses of old cars along the water, their steel, glass and rubber slowly dissolving into riparian sediments and foliage.
The phrase "tail race" originally referred to a channel into which water from a mill was discharged. (A "head race" conducted water to the wheel.) The hydraulic power needed to turn a big waterwheel could quickly erode the land on which the mill stood if released full-force, so it was important to slow down the flow before returning it back into the stream or river from which it came or, as business picked up, directing it to another mill downhill from the first.
In the case of the tailrace at Mile 3.6 of the Old Glenn Highway, the water starts at Eklutna Lake and travels 4.5 miles through a pipe 9 feet in diameter, making a drop of about 800 feet, before hitting turbines that supply electricity to Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough. But today's tailrace serves the same purpose as the old tail race did in the days when grain was ground between stones turned by water. "It's where water pools before it goes out to the creek," said Jim Posey, general manager of Municipal Light & Power, one of three utilities that share the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project. It goes into the Knik River and thence to Cook Inlet.
Water from Eklutna Lake has supplied electricity to Anchorage since the 1920s. The facility changed hands between local and federal organizations over the years until ML&P, Chugach Electric Association and Matanuska Electric Association formed a consortium in 1987 to buy it at auction from the Bureau of Land Management. The tailrace has been stocked with silver salmon since 1998.
While junked cars have been used for erosion control along some Alaska rivers, Posey doubts that's why there are so many at the Eklutna Tailrace. "I don't think it was intentional," he said.
Instead, he suspects that easy road access to an often unpopulated spot made it convenient for people to abandon cars there.
"There was a lot of dumping going on in the old days," he said. In recent memory one could find trashed cars all over the municipality, in Chugach State Park, Connor's Bog dog park, the bluffs off the Kincaid trails. Jim Creek, not far upstream from the Eklutna Tailrace, was notorious for the derelict chassis and other junk left by heavy-duty litterbugs. Some cars were dumped by their legitimate owners when they quit working. Others were stolen by joyriders and left or torched where they got stuck.
The wrecks of the tailrace seem to date from the 1950s through the '80s, the era of federal ownership. Better surveillance, more people -- especially anglers -- in the vicinity and perhaps better manners have eased the dumping problem at the power plant outflow over the past 30-some years.
"Things have changed," Posey said. "They put fish in it now. And the fish come back."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.