Southcentral Alaska utilities submit much-debated Eklutna River restoration plan to governor

Two Southcentral Alaska electric utilities on Thursday sent to Gov. Mike Dunleavy their final proposal in a historic effort to return water flow and possibly salmon to much of the Eklutna River.

The Chugach and Matanuska electric associations and the Municipality of Anchorage’s hydropower utility own the dam and hydropower project that dries up the river. The utilities are undertaking a legally required effort to reduce the dam’s impacts on fish and wildlife. The effort 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 submittal of the final program to Dunleavy triggers a 60-day comment period for the agreement’s signatories, including two federal agencies and the state, and another 30-day comment period for the utilities to respond.

They’ve called for Dunleavy to approve the program by the end of October.

The utilities first proposed a draft fish and wildlife program last fall.

The Dena’ina village of Eklutna, the Anchorage Assembly and some conservation groups have opposed the utilities’ plan because they want to see the full 12-mile length of the river fully restored, with fish passage into the lake.

The utilities’ plan would leave a mile of riverbed dry directly below the dam, not allowing fish to swim into Eklutna Lake. The Native village recently proposed a new option in an attempt to compromise with the utilities.


The final proposal comes one day after the Anchorage Assembly took legal action in the ongoing disagreement with Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and the electric utilities over the Eklutna River plan.

[What’s behind the fight over the Eklutna River?]

What’s in the plan

The utilities, in a written statement Thursday, said they made “substantive revisions to the program reflecting negotiations with the parties to the 1991 Agreement” and the Native Village of Eklutna.

It would still rely on a portal valve to remove water from a pipe owned by the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility. The pipe diverts Anchorage’s drinking water from Eklutna Lake. A facility would release water 1 mile below the dam.

The biggest change to the utilities’ proposal is that it allows a management committee to reevaluate options for fish passage into Eklutna Lake anytime after the water has flowed for 10 years.

“We heard a lot from the two federal agencies and from the Native Village of Eklutna that they really, really wanted fish passage to the lake,” said Samantha Owen of engineering firm McMillen Inc., who is managing the project for the utilities.

Owen said they evaluated all known upstream and downstream fish passage measures, and every one “was cost prohibitive or had significant impacts to the hydro project.”

If the committee finds a method that meets the owners’ criteria, they will support fish passage, she said.

The price tag for the project has increased from a previously estimated $57 million to $63.8 million. That could rise to more than $72 million, under a new option in the plan that could see a fixed wheel gate installed in the dam after 10 years. A fixed wheel gate would allow water to go through the dam when the reservoir is full.

Other big changes include:

• $350,000 in funding for habitat enhancement, such as creating logjams and side channels.

The funding is an attempt to strike a balance between adding rearing habitat for fish and preserving hydropower generation, Owen said.

She said the proposed flow regime for the river is “the best bang for your buck as far as water and habitat gains for spawning.”

“That said, we acknowledge that for rearing habitat, if you added more water you will start to gain a lot more habitat,” she said.

• As water flowing into the lake from the surrounding watershed increases, the additional water will be split 50-50 between the hydropower project and what is diverted into the river.

“It’s a way to have more water go in the river in the future without impacting or taking away from hydro generation now,” Owen said.


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 point of contention has been that the plan largely would not benefit a fifth salmon species, sockeye salmon, which typically rely on lakes for rearing.

The Native Village of Eklutna, Assembly members and conservation groups have also said that the water flow regime as planned by the utilities isn’t enough to significantly support fish.

The utilities’ final plan “is being presented as a compromise for fish and a compromise with the Native Village of Eklutna, but it is neither,” Aaron Leggett, president of the village, said in a statement Friday.

“There is no real mitigation in this plan, there is no true vision for what the river can be for this community,” Leggett said. “Cook Inlet salmon, Eklutna People and all the people of Southcentral Alaska will continue to suffer at the hands of this hydropower project while the utilities skirt the obligations set forth in their purchase agreement.”

The Native village recently proposed a new option, in an attempt to compromise with the utilities, that would bring water back to all 12 miles.

The utilities have opposed removal of the dam, and the village’s newest plan is still ultimately requesting dam removal in 10 years, Owen said.

Owen said that their assessment of dam removal showed that the increased river flow would pose significant risk to downstream infrastructure, including the city’s public water supply, and would come with numerous additional costs.

“The power plant decommissioning, replacement bridges, you know, replacement water supply pipeline, and then ultimately replacement energy costs — it was going to pencil out to be about $500 million plus in 2034 dollars,” Owen said.


Tribal leaders have challenged that analysis, citing concerns over the methods used and the cost estimates.

Assembly members previously voiced a litany of concerns over the utilities’ draft plan. They’ve said 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 city would be responsible for about 19% of the capital and operating costs, according to a document on the plan.

The utilities say it’s too early to determine if, when and how much of the costs will be recovered through rate increases. And it’s not yet clear whether the city will have to raise taxes to pay for it, they said in the documents.

In Thursday’s statement, the utilities said the plan implements “significant fish and wildlife measures” while “simultaneously protecting the municipal water supply and continuing to provide firm, low cost, renewable energy to Southcentral Alaska.”

In a statement Thursday, Brad Meiklejohn, the Alaska representative for The Conservation Fund, slammed the utilities over the final plan.

“The utility boards just told the Eklutna Natives and salmon to go sit in the corner and wait another 35 years. It pains me to see them carry on the mistakes of history that we should be working to remedy. Over and over we have given the utilities the chance to be heroic and right these wrongs. Once again they chose narrow self-interest over the well-being of our community.”

Legal fight

The Anchorage Assembly on Wednesday called on the state Superior Court to enforce a subpoena requiring the municipal attorney to produce documents related to a dispute over restoring water to the Eklutna River.

But those documents were publicly released along with the final plan on Thursday.

They include a binding term sheet and amendment that could govern the city’s rights and access to drinking water from Eklutna Lake for the next 25 years. The term sheet was signed between the Bronson administration and the utilities that own the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project in October, just before they publicly released their draft plan to restore the river.

It’s unclear what the release of the documents means for the Assembly’s case against municipal attorney Anne Helzer.

“In the context of the subpoena, she failed to respond, because she was filibustering, and that’s not how you respond to a subpoena. You go to court to respond to a subpoena” if you don’t believe you have to comply, Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said.


Constant said the good news is that the Assembly and community can now “broadly investigate what’s been agreed to.”

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

They also say the utilities do not have the right to impact Anchorage’s drinking water infrastructure without Assembly approval.

Under Anchorage city code, the Assembly chair, by a majority vote of the Assembly, can issue subpoenas that compel the release of documents and/or sworn testimony for information regarding public matters it is considering. Historically, Assembly subpoenas have been used rarely, though the Assembly has issued several since Bronson took office.

According to the Assembly’s complaint, Helzer did not produce the documents after Constant sent her a subpoena last week.

Also, Assembly attorneys on Wednesday appealed to the Superior Court a decision by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska that has left the municipality without voting rights over the plan proposed by the Chugach and Matanuska electric associations to return water to the river.


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

Assembly leaders say the lack of voting rights has essentially left the Chugach and Matanuska electric utilities in charge of the plan, despite potential impacts to property taxpayers, utility ratepayers and the city’s drinking water. They say it has effectively given the utilities the power to levy taxes on Anchorage residents.

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which regulates utilities, last week denied a request from the Assembly to reinstate the city’s voting power.

The Assembly on Wednesday filed an appeal with the state Superior Court, saying that the RCA’s decision was “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.”

“This whole scheme that they’ve created where Chugach and (Matanuska) are now the deciders of government expenditure — this is like an absolute shock to me. People should be up in arms,” Constant said. “They just almost doubled the amount the muni has to pay without the muni having a single say.”

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