What’s behind the fight over the Eklutna River?

The Municipality of Anchorage and two electric utilities are looking to restore water flow back to the Eklutna River.

It’s a historic moment, everyone agrees.

For decades, an earthen dam at the base of Eklutna Lake has dried up most of the 12-mile river.

Putting water back into the river, located about 25 miles northeast of downtown Anchorage, could lead to new fishing opportunities if salmon and other fish flourish in its waters. It could support new outdoor activities and businesses, such as guided wildlife viewing, kayaking or hiking.

Also, many see it as a critical step toward reparation for harm done to the nearby Dena’ina Native Village of Eklutna when the river was dammed by hydropower projects starting in 1929.

But over the past six months, a big fight has erupted over how the effort to restore the river should move forward.

In October the utilities that own the project, the Chugach and Matanuska electric associations, and the city’s Anchorage Hydropower Utility, proposed a $57 million plan to mitigate impacts of the dam. Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and two state agencies support their plan.


The Anchorage Assembly, the Native Village of Eklutna, conservation groups and two federal agencies have said they support another plan.

Other issues at stake include impacts to taxpayers, electric prices and the city’s water supply and infrastructure.

With the utilities expected to submit their final plan to Alaska’s governor in the coming days or weeks, disagreements are coming to a head.

However, as the debate over restoring the Eklutna River has intensified, the story has also gotten more complicated. Here’s what you need to know to follow the issue:

Why are utilities proposing a plan now?

The Eklutna River plan arises from an agreement signed in 1991 that allowed the city and electric utilities to buy the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project from the federal government. The renewable energy facility currently provides a small percentage of power in the Anchorage and Wasilla areas.

The deal required that within 25 years of the purchase, the city and utilities had to look for ways to reduce the impact of the hydropower project on fish and wildlife.

That’s the effort that’s playing out today.

What are the options?

The utilities have proposed a plan to restore water flow to 11 miles of the river, leaving 1 mile dry. To do so, they would use a portal valve to remove water from the pipe owned by the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility. The pipe diverts Anchorage’s drinking water from Eklutna Lake.

This plan is commonly called the “portal valve alternative.” The utilities say rerouting some of the water in the pipe would not reduce the city’s legally protected supply of drinking water. They say their plan provides the best balance for costs, energy needs, drinking water and habitat restoration.

The Bronson administration supports this approach. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has said they support the portal valve, with additional improvements to infrastructure. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has not stated a position on the alternatives, though Chugach State Park supports the portal valve given the recreational benefits, a spokesperson with the agency said.

On the other hand, the village of Eklutna, the Anchorage Assembly and conservation groups want to see the river fully restored, with fish passage into the lake.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service said in December they also want water restored to the full length of the Eklutna.

The utilities have been working with the agencies to find common ground before a final proposal is presented to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. It’s possible that positions could change.

Why is there disagreement over the plan?

The utilities say their portal valve plan will provide new habitat that could benefit four species of salmon: kings, silvers, chums and pinks.

However, a key sticking point is that the plan largely would not benefit a fifth salmon species, sockeye salmon, which typically rely on lakes for rearing. That’s because it would not allow fish to reach Eklutna Lake.

Village leaders says actions long ago that dammed the glacier-fed river for its hydropower came without the village’s input. They say it cost the community a valuable cultural and fishing resource.

An engineering consultant hired by the Assembly to analyze the utilities’ draft plan asserted that the portal valve wouldn’t provide adequate water flows to the river year-round and could result in fish kills.


The utilities said the consultant’s analysis is “fundamentally flawed and out of date” and that they have designed the facility to avoid interruption of water flow and fish kills.

To resolve the differences, the Assembly early this year sought a two-year delay, calling for deeper evaluation of mitigation and restoration options.

Assembly members voiced a litany of concerns over the utilities’ draft plan, saying that analysis of the possible alternatives was incomplete; that potential impacts to the city’s drinking water aren’t yet fully understood; and that the costs to utility ratepayers and property taxpayers are likewise poorly understood, among other worries.

The utilities denied the request, saying they examined more than 30 possibilities in an extensive analysis over several months, and that they could see no legal path to delaying the process outlined in the 1991 agreement.

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

Why are the Anchorage Assembly and Mayor Dave Bronson clashing over the plan?

The debate over restoring the Eklutna river has led to a power dispute between the Assembly and Bronson administration, with a volley of city legislation, mayoral vetoes and veto overrides on the matter.

At the root of the debate is new information that came to light in recent months, leading the Assembly to question whether the Bronson administration has properly overseen the city’s stake in the project.

The city, which currently owns 53% of the hydroelectric project, has not had voting rights within the project’s ownership group for several years.


That has ultimately left the Chugach and Matanuska electric utilities in charge of the plan to restore water to the Eklutna River.

Starting with the days of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration in 2020, the municipality has not hired a qualified executive to oversee Anchorage Hydropower Utility — the city entity that’s part of the project ownership group — which is necessary to get the city’s voting rights back.

The Assembly this week formally asked the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which regulates utilities, to reinstate the city’s voting power as a majority owner of the hydroelectric project.

The city would be able to vote on policy matters related to the 1991 agreement, including whether to approve the final plan before it is submitted to the governor, according to the request.

On top of that, the Assembly earlier this year learned that the Bronson administration signed a deal with the utilities last October that will govern Anchorage’s drinking water rights for 25 years.

The agreement, a “binding term sheet,” was based on the utilities’ plan to tap into the city’s water supply. It would go into effect if the governor approves the Fish and Wildlife program, city officials have said.

Assembly leaders say the Bronson administration usurped the Assembly’s legislative authority when it bound the city to the terms without their knowledge. That circumvents the Assembly’s role to oversee fiscal decisions and policy regarding city utilities and property, they say.

Assembly leaders have called for Bronson officials to make the term sheet public. But the administration has refused to do so, saying that the document is confidential.

Assembly members viewed the term sheet in a closed-door session. But the Bronson administration has refused to hand over copies to the Assembly without members first signing a confidentiality agreement.

The municipal attorney last week said she is worried that the Assembly would publicly release them and leave the city legally liable for violating a preexisting confidentiality agreement with the electric utilities.

The Assembly in March authorized subpoena powers in order to obtain copies.

The Assembly also passed an ordinance dictating in city code the Assembly’s oversight of changes to the city’s property rights, including those related to water.


Bronson said the Assembly is infringing on the mayor’s executive authority and vetoed the measure, along with the chair’s subpoena powers.

Last week, Assembly members voted to overturn both vetoes.

How will the project be paid for?

This is another flash point.

The electric utilities have said electric rate increases will pay for their portion of the plan.

Anchorage would pay for its portion of the project with slight increases to city property tax revenue.

Information from the utilities indicates that the increases to rates and property taxes would be modest.


But Assembly members say they don’t know what the cost to the municipality will ultimately be, or how the property taxes would be implemented.

Also, Assembly leaders have said that because the city doesn’t have a vote, that’s let the electric utilities run the show. They say it has effectively given the utilities the power to levy taxes on Anchorage residents and make decisions critical to the city’s drinking water rights, which is contrary to the municipality’s charter and laws.

The utilities this week declined to comment on the Assembly leaders’ assertions.

”Now that the Assembly has taken several issues to the RCA, the project owners are unable to comment,” Julie Hasquet, a spokesperson with Chugach Electric, said in an email.

What’s next?

The utilities plan to submit a final proposed Fish and Wildlife program to Gov. Mike Dunleavy by late this month, though that may not happen until early May.

That initiates a 60-day comment period for the entities that originally signed the 1991 agreement.

The Assembly’s March ordinance also added to code that the proposal to mitigate the dam’s impacts “shall be subject to Assembly approval” before it is submitted to the governor.

It’s unclear at this point if the Assembly will get that opportunity.

And it’s not yet clear if the Assembly or another entity will take legal action to challenge the final plan to restore water to the Eklutna River.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the state Department of Natural Resources supports the portal valve option. The story has been updated to reflect that the department has not taken a position on the options.

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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

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