Anchorage Assembly calls for a 2-year halt in Eklutna River restoration plans

The Anchorage Assembly is calling for a two-year halt and opposing the program proposed by utilities in Southcentral Alaska to restore water flow to the long-dammed Eklutna River, citing concerns over impacts to the city’s drinking water and cost impacts for utility ratepayers and property taxpayers, among others.

The Assembly and the Native Village of Eklutna want to see restoration of water flow to the full length of the Eklutna River. The utilities’ proposed program would leave a 1-mile stretch of riverbed dry.

An earthen dam built by the federal government in 1955 at the base of Eklutna Lake dries up most of the 12-mile river.

The dam’s owners — the Chugach and Matanuska electric associations and the Anchorage Hydropower Utility — released their proposed Fish and Wildlife program late last fall. It’s a historic and legally required effort to mitigate the dam’s impacts, replenish the river, and return salmon to its waters.

The utilities have proposed a $57 million plan to use the city’s existing water supply infrastructure to replenish flow to 11 miles of the river via a portal valve, frequently called the “portal valve alternative.”

That plan could see water restored to the river as early as 2027, but it would leave 1 mile of the river dry directly downstream of the dam at Eklutna Lake. It would also not fully restore salmon that could inhabit the river’s higher reaches, the lake and mountain streams that feed the lake.

During a special meeting Friday — and after a closed executive session with city lawyers and legal representatives for the utilities — the Assembly approved a resolution that opposes the draft program and calls for the two-year delay. The measure passed in an 8-0 vote, with four members absent.


It asks the hydroelectric project owners to seek a two-year extension of the 1991 agreement in order to do further analysis of options, consult and coordinate with those affected, including the Assembly and Native Village of Eklutna.

The federal government sold the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project to the utilities under the terms of the 1991 agreement, which outlined the current process.

The Assembly resolution lays out a litany of concerns over the draft program: They say potential impacts to the city’s drinking water aren’t yet fully understood; they say development of the draft program involved a “non-compliant process”; they say the analysis of the possible alternatives was incomplete; and they say that it would be a questionable use of public funds — including so far poorly understood impacts to utility ratepayers and Anchorage property taxpayers.

The Assembly’s action also comes after members learned that the city’s water utility signed an apparently binding and long-term agreement with the hydroelectric project owners last fall, during the ongoing public process.

The utilities have so far kept the terms confidential from the public and they were shown to the Assembly only in executive session Friday.

“We can’t make concrete decisions in the dark,” Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said during a Thursday news conference. “... What does this actually do to the ratepayers of the electric utility? To the ratepayers of the water utility? To the taxpayer?”

The window for public comment on the draft program is set to close later this month. The program could then head to the governor for approval as soon as April.

If approved, it would chart the course for the future of Eklutna River — and could lock the city into a course of action with impacts, costs and risks that are not yet fully understood, Assembly leaders said during the news conference.

“The Fish and Wildlife Program is a big deal. This isn’t a small deal. This is significant, not just for all of Anchorage but the future of Anchorage over the next 30, 60, 70 years,” Assembly member Kevin Cross said.

Cross sponsored the resolution alongside Constant and Vice Chair Meg Zaletel.

[Electric utilities push back on proposal from Native village and Anchorage Assembly leaders to remove Eklutna River hydropower dam]

At the end of Friday’s meeting, Julie Hasquet, spokeswoman for Chugach Electric, told the Assembly that the utilities looked at more than 30 alternatives in an analysis process over several months.

“Yes, one came forward as a draft program, because that is what is required under the 1991 agreement — for the owners to bring forward a draft program for public comment, and then a final program that will go to the governor. But literally dozens were considered evaluated, talked about,” Hasquet said.

The Assembly’s resolution called the portal valve alternative, brought forward by the utilities, “self-serving,” and said it “fails to protect the broader public interests of the Municipality of Anchorage.”

Concerns over potential fish kills

The Alaska Native Village of Eklutna and Assembly leaders last month called for the removal of the dam and full restoration of the river, an option that the utilities have staunchly opposed.

The utilities say that an initial review indicates that dam removal could have catastrophic consequences, possibly endanger bridges downstream and that it could scour and severely damage the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility pipe that carries the city’s drinking water from the lake. They also have raised concerns about finding reliable replacement power sources.

Assembly leaders this week said they aren’t necessarily calling for the dam’s total removal or elimination of the hydropower project, but rather a return to analysis of multiple options.


“The ‘91 agreement required it was balanced. It was to balance the needs for hydroelectric, balance the needs for the water rights for Anchorage and balance the needs of restoring the river and righting the wrongs of the past,” Cross said.

The Assembly is calling for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to intervene and use its authority to begin a review of the draft program to examine any impacts on any of the regulated utilities — including Chugach Electric, Matanuska Electric, Anchorage Hydropower and the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility.

Over concerns about water impacts, last fall the Assembly hired an engineering consultant, Don Spiegel of GV Jones & Associates, to analyze the draft program and its portal valve alternative.

Spiegel, who helped design AWWU’s system at Eklutna, found that the portal valve can’t provide adequate restoration of water flows to the river, nor can it keep water flowing year-round without interruption.

That’s because the water pipe system undergoes regular and unexpected maintenance, and variations in lake level would also cause problems, according to Spiegel’s analysis.

Interruptions in water flow would result in fish kills in the river.

“It is his opinion that the portal valve as currently configured is fatally flawed and other Eklutna river restoration alternatives should be studied further,” Zaletel said.

Also, the Assembly recently learned from AWWU that federal regulation of drinking water is shifting, especially in relation to “forever contaminants” in drinking water, Zaletel said. That could have yet-unknown impacts to how the city uses drinking water from ground wells and impact the city’s need for water from Eklutna Lake, she said.


‘Government in the dark’

There is stark disagreement about whether the terms of the 1991 agreement have been properly followed.

“The 1991 agreement — which we have been following — calls for the enhancement and mitigation of damages from the project. It does not call for restoration,” Hasquet said. “And with all due respect to the Native Village and everybody who wants restoration, that word is not in the 1991 agreement.”

The utilities have worked with the village and nonprofits including Trout Unlimited and The Conservation Fund, she said.

“It was a very good public process. I’m very proud of the meetings we had, how transparent and inclusive we were,” Hasquet said.

Assembly members say that the 1991 agreement is intended to be “at least as robust” as standard federal environmental review processes.

But the utilities’ process so far “falls short” of those standards, the Assembly said in the resolution.

“The federal agencies were denied the authorities they normally would have, such as to prescribe fish passage, and the public wasn’t presented any alternatives to choose from,” the Assembly said.

In an ordinance last year, the Assembly codified the city’s policy for the project, which calls for water restoration to the full length of the river. The municipality “as policy, does not intend to issue authorizations or provide any funds or any other form of support” for a program that does not do so, Zaletel said.

Assembly leaders said in the last few weeks they learned that the hydroelectric project owners and the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility signed a binding agreement — based on the portal valve alternative and no other — just before the draft program was released.

“Those directly affect the finances of the taxpayer. Those directly affect the water rights of Anchorage,” Cross said. The Assembly and public deserves to know what is in the agreement, he and Assembly leaders said.

The utilities have so far declined to make the agreement public, and again refused during Friday’s meeting via Municipal Attorney Anne Helzer. Instead, they allowed the Assembly to review the term sheet in a closed session Friday.

The term sheet is considered “common interest material” under an agreement signed by the three owners in 2017, Hasquet said in a statement Friday evening.


“There are formal documents that will need to be negotiated,” she said.

It’s highly unusual to keep such an agreement of public agencies and public interest confidential, and contrary to the spirit of state and city public records laws, Assembly attorney Matthew Hurt said at Friday’s meeting.

“There aren’t a whole lot of executed secret agreements. Off the top of my head, I don’t know of any that public agencies engage in and are able to preserve confidentiality,” Hurt said.

Helzer told Assembly members that the Matanuska and Chugach electric utilities sent the city a letter on Thursday stating that they would not waive confidentiality — and declined also to make that letter public when Assembly members asked for it to be put on record.

“They understand the letter as part of the negotiations, subject to the confidentiality provisions,” Helzer said.

To that, Constant replied, “government in the dark.”


It remains unclear what the terms in the agreement are, how they may intersect with the dam mitigation project or impact the city’s water rights and the rates it pays.

Having a binding term agreement come to light after going through the options and alternatives “really kind of broke my heart for this process,” Constant said of the draft program following the executive session.

“And it just demonstrated to me that the conclusion was made before the process was fully and faithfully adopted,” he said.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at