With no dam to stop it, the Eklutna River is temporarily reborn. Many people hope to keep it alive for good.

Conservation and tribal groups in 2018 removed a downstream dam in the river northeast of Anchorage. But an upriver dam provides the cheapest energy in Southcentral Alaska.

The Eklutna River near Anchorage is flowing continuously into Cook Inlet, without a dam blocking its path, for the first time in nearly a century.

The river’s water has been diverted since 1929, first to generate electricity and later to double as the main source of drinking water for Anchorage residents.

But the river, mostly dry for decades, sprang back to life on Sept. 13.

On that day, the utilities that own a hydroelectric project at Eklutna Lake opened a small drainage gate, intentionally feeding water into the river for the first time.

The Chugach Electric Association, the Matanuska Electric Association and the municipality’s Anchorage Hydropower Utility will stop the release on Oct. 6.

The effort is part of a study by the utilities that will help determine if they should supply the river with water year-round, and if so, at what levels.

For people from the Native Village of Eklutna, near the river’s mouth 25 miles northeast of downtown Anchorage, the river’s rebirth was an important moment.

They want the 12-mile-long waterway permanently restored, along with the salmon their late elders once described as abundant.

Lee Stephan, a clan chief in the village, said he visited the river days after it began running. 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 do come true,” Stephan said.

Salmon return

A private developer built a lower-river dam in the Eklutna River the year the Great Depression began, at the base of a 400-foot canyon.

The 65-foot concrete wall helped provide power to a young Anchorage. It cut the river off about 4 river miles from its mouth.

Three years ago, Eklutna’s tribal government and Alaska Native village corporation, as well as The Conservation Fund, blew up and removed that dam. It cost $7.5 million.

[For 89 years, a dam blocked salmon on the Eklutna River. It’s finally gone.]

Salmon have finned farther upriver since the removal, said Ron Benkert, a Southcentral regional supervisor with Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Last year, Benkert and another biologist documented three juvenile silver salmon a mile upstream of the former dam, he said.

The tiny fish had navigated what remained of the river at that time: a rivulet a person could often leap across, a few inches deep at times, Benkert said. It was fed by an occasional small tributary, snowmelt and rain.

“It’s great news,” Benkert said of the salmon. “They are occupying new rearing habitat with the removal of that dam.”

Getting rid of the dam was one step in the river’s recovery, said Aaron Leggett, president of the Eklutna tribal government.

The recent release of water is more progress, he said. It’s a sight that today’s tribal members haven’t seen.

“It’s a huge deal. The village is where it is because of that river,” he said.

Final course to be decided in 2024

In 1955, the federal government created the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project at the lake, increasing hydropower in the region. It features an embankment dam, a 4.5 mile-long tunnel through a mountain, and a powerhouse along Knik River.

That project cut off the river’s main water source, except for lake spillovers every several years, often after heavy rains. It left Thunderbird Creek as the river’s only major and consistent water source, about 3 miles from the mouth.

The utilities and the municipality purchased the Eklutna hydropower project in 1997, for $6 million. It provides about 6% of their generated electricity, powering about 25,000 homes annually, they say.

The purchase came with a catch.

An agreement with the federal government and state required that the utilities, no later than 2022, begin a process to study and propose ways to reduce the project’s impacts to fish and wildlife.

The effort began in 2019. The utilities have been meeting with state and federal agencies, the Eklutna tribe, conservation groups and other interested groups. They created a website detailing the effort.

“We are trying to make the process as inclusive and transparent as possible,” said Samantha Owen, who is managing the effort for the utilities through her employment with engineering firm McMillen Jacobs Associates.

The studies began this summer. They are looking at potential fish habitat, landscape changes from the running river and other impacts.

The utilities have spent about $3 million on the process so far, said Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman with Chugach Electric.

After more studies next year, the utilities will develop proposals to protect and enhance fish and wildlife resources, the agreement says. They’ll also take public input.

The governor of Alaska in 2024 will approve a final plan, to begin in 2027.

To protect the lake’s broad public uses, the governor must give equal consideration to many factors, like efficient power production, municipal water supplies and recreational opportunities such as trails, the agreement says.

Balancing restoration with energy demand

Many participants believe that returning water to the river is the best way to enhance fish and wildlife opportunities, Owen said.

But that option isn’t required in the agreement, she said.

Supplying the river with water, if that path is chosen, will come at a price, she said. Less water in the lake will mean less water for hydropower, typically the cheapest form of electricity in Southcentral Alaska.

“I don’t think anyone wants to affect the water supply for the city,” she said. “So, ipso facto, the water has to come from hydropower generation.”

“Everything is more expensive than Eklutna (power), so there will be an associated cost to the ratepayer,” she said.

Eklutna tribal members and environmental groups hope the lake can meet all competing uses.

Brad Meiklejohn, Alaska director for The Conservation Fund, said hydroelectric generation could be reduced if the lake water supplies the river. If so, he’s hopeful other forms of renewable energy one day replace it.

“I think of salmon as our ultimate renewable resource,” he said.

Benkert, with Fish and Game, said the release can help scientists determine how much water is needed to support the salmon. The utilities will also consider the economic cost of losing that water.

Benkert wants to see salmon venturing up the entire river some day, he said.

“I think all the players involved believe water in the river is the best solution,” he said.

He represents Fish and Game on a technical working group that’s helping shape the studies and will provide input on a final proposal.

“But whether it’s feasible is something we need to look at as we develop the proposal,” Benkert said.

‘This is bringing life back’

When the utilities opened the lake’s drainage gate, they initially released the equivalent of six Olympic-sized swimming pools an hour.

They’ve tapered that amount every several days, so scientists can consider a range of flows and how they affect the waterway.

When the release began, the first threads of water slid down the riverbed slowly, a trickle that grew louder. The water wove through rocks and mud like an ocean wave along a beach, as shown in a Sept. 13 video filmed by the Eklutna tribe.

The water initially traveled an estimated 1 mph, Owen said. It needed about 12 hours to reach the river’s mouth.

More than a week after the release, the river ran steadily, stretching maybe 25 or 30 feet wide on average, said Meiklejohn, a longtime observer of the river who lives in nearby Eagle River.

The channel changes daily, he said.

The water is driving boulders downstream and knocking down trees that grew along the dry banks, he said. It’s breaking up beaver dams, and washing away massive amounts of silt that built up behind the former dam.

“It’s like watching geology happen,” he said.

Maria Coleman, vice president of the tribal government, said she saw the river flowing for the first time on a Facebook video.

The water’s return brought a shared sense of joy to Eklutna. It feels like tribal members are doing right by their late elders who wanted it restored, she said.

“This is bringing life back,” she said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.