As effort to restore Eklutna River inches toward decision, disagreements remain over how far plan should go

Electric utilities in the urban heart of Alaska are proposing to restore water to the long-dammed Eklutna River. That could bring salmon back to the waterway for the first time in nearly a century.

But questions about how to replenish the 12-mile-long river are driving a debate between the utilities that would primarily rely on existing infrastructure and an Alaska Native village that has chosen a replacement dam as its preferred option.

The discussion is part of a long-awaited analysis to reduce the environmental harms of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project, built by the federal government in 1955. The system provides the cheapest electricity in Southcentral Alaska. But an earthen dam at Eklutna Lake dries up most of the river.

The federal government sold the project to the utilities in 1997, leading to today’s analysis.

The owners, the Chugach and Matanuska electric associations and the municipality’s Anchorage Hydropower Utility, are set to release a draft proposal for a fish and wildlife program next month, which would include a plan from the utilities to reduce the project’s impacts on fish and other animals.

The utilities have said they prefer to release water a mile downstream of the dam. That would leave 1 mile of the river dry. The utilities would tap into the pipe that delivers Anchorage’s drinking water, installing a portal valve to divert flow without diminishing Anchorage’s legally protected water.

It’s the most economical of several alternatives they’ve analyzed, after four years of meetings with interested parties, utility representatives say. It will provide miles of new habitat that could benefit four species of salmon: kings, silvers, chums and pinks.


But they say that their preferred alternative largely would not benefit a fifth salmon species, sockeye, which typically rely on lakes for rearing.

The Alaska departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Game also support the alternative for the portal valve, the utilities say. A Fish and Game representative said some sockeye would return to the river, but in limited amounts.

The utilities’ preferred alternative balances the lake’s uses, said Samantha Owen, who is managing the effort for the utilities through her employment with engineering firm McMillen Inc.

It “achieves a lot of great mitigation and habitat gains for fish while avoiding major impacts to the hydro project,” she said.

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

The village of Eklutna, near the river’s mouth 25 miles northeast of downtown Anchorage, wants the river fully restored so all salmon species can reach the lake and tributaries above it.

The Native Village of Eklutna prefers the construction of a new dam, with features that would allow fish to enter the lake, said Aaron Leggett, the tribe’s president.

The effort marks a historical opportunity to address a long period of cultural neglect, he said.

“Our people have paid a price for development in our traditional homeland, and this is the first time we’ve come to ask for something in return” when it comes to a major project, he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service also prefer the proposal for a replacement dam, with a phased implementation that allows water to be returned to the Eklutna River as soon as possible, by using the portal valve, while planning and construction of a new dam takes place, according to letters from the agencies.

Conservation groups that have been involved in the process also share the tribe’s preference for a replacement dam. And Alaska Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola supports the village’s efforts, she said in a May letter to the Chugach Electric Association.

The release of a draft proposal for a fish and wildlife program will lead to public comment in January, and a final decision by the governor next year. Water could return to the river as early as 2027.

Divisions over the dam

When Congress approved the sale of the hydroelectric project, a 1991 agreement called for today’s analysis.

A divestiture report also indicated that an original hydropower dam installed on the lower river in 1929 may have eliminated the sockeye salmon. That privately owned dam, like the federal dam that followed it, was designed to provide power to a growing Anchorage.

The report cited the loss of the sockeye run as a main driver for requiring today’s analysis, along with impacts to fish and wildlife more broadly.

The utilities say they’re following the legally binding agreement, which does not mention sockeye salmon.

“The divestiture report provides important context for Congress, but the project owners are following the 1991 agreement to the letter,” Owen said.


That lower dam was blown up and removed in 2018, a $7.5 million effort led by Brad Meiklejohn, a senior Alaska representative for The Conservation Fund. The removal occurred in partnership with the village of Eklutna.

Meiklejohn said he’d like to see the full river restored. He said the analysis has been led by the utilities, and is biased toward their preference. “This is barreling toward an outcome that won’t benefit the public interest,” he said.

The utilities say a replacement dam will be costly. They roughly estimate that construction alone will run about $115 million, according to a slideshow of the alternatives. The tribal government also wants a sizable flow of water, so much of Eklutna Hydroelectric’s cheap power will need to be replaced with more expensive energy.

The utilities say the tribe’s preferred alternative would cause electric rates to jump nearly 4% at Chugach Electric and a bit more at Matanuska Electric. Anchorage property taxes would increase about $4.50 for every $100,000 of a home’s value, they say.

The portal valve the utilities install at Anchorage’s water pipe would cost a fraction of that, they say.

Leggett, with the Eklutna tribal government, said he believes the utilities’ construction estimate is tens of millions of dollars too high. The Alaska Native village corporation, Eklutna Inc., the largest landowner in Anchorage with 90,000 acres, works in construction and land development. Eklutna-owned lands could potentially be used to take dirt that arises from construction, helping lower costs, he said.

Leggett said bringing back all the salmon could have widespread benefits, boosting local fishing and tourism and helping counteract struggling salmon counts in Cook Inlet that have hurt commercial fishermen.

Leggett said the village believes it can find funding for a new dam, such as from federal opportunities or other grants.


“We’re not the first one to take out a dam and have it replaced, and we believe with partnerships that we can make it happen,” he said. “No one thought we could find the $8 million to take out a deadbeat dam but we made that happen.”

‘A balancing act’

Ron Benkert, Fish and Game’s regional habitat supervisor, said salmon have been documented farther upriver since the original dam’s removal.

Benkert said Fish and Game prefers the portal valve, but with a slightly higher water flow than the utilities prefer.

Water flow in most of the river will bring back salmon over time, he said. Some sockeye salmon will return to the river, but since they typically rear in lakes, their presence won’t be at levels the tribe would like to see, he said.

Benkert said the agency is trying to support salmon while protecting the hydropower capacity of the lake. The hydroelectric project provides about 6% of the utilities’ power, enough for about 25,000 homes, the utilities say.

[What the Alaska-rooted deputy Interior secretary has to say about those canceled ANWR leases]

Fish and Game also believes the lake might not have the nutrients to support salmon like it did a century ago. Meltoff from the Eklutna Glacier seems to have created more turbid waters in the lake, hurting the food web, he said.

Landlocked sockeye salmon, known as kokanee, now occupy the lake, he said. They’re believed to be descendants of sockeye that entered the lake before the original dam installation. Those kokanee only grow 4 inches, about half their potential, suggesting along with studies that nutrients in the lake are low, he said.

“It’s not the same as it was 100 years ago,” he said.

Benkert said returning salmon will support more bears and raptors and improve the ecosystem in other ways.

“It’s an exciting thing to be able to turn back the clock a little bit and start thinking about providing habitat for fish as well as the infrastructure that we need as a society for power and water,” he said. “It’s a balancing act and a compromise.”

Meiklejohn, with The Conservation Fund, said if returning salmon could reach the lake to spawn, they’d bring nutrients, making it more productive in the future.

“There was a reason those sockeye went there in the first place,” he said. “They had a reason to believe they could survive, and they survived 100 years there without even getting to the ocean.”

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