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Let's find a way to restore the Eklutna River and its salmon runs

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published March 20, 2016

Fish can't drink bottled water.

They can't breathe it, inhaling dissolved oxygen through their gills. They can't swim or raise their young in it. Fish can't die in bottled water, fertilizing the water for future generations. I guess that's why it bothers me so much.

Thirty miles north of downtown Anchorage, Eklutna River used to be a viable salmon stream. A hydroelectric dam built in 1929 eradicated most of the salmon in the river. That dam was antiquated in the 1950s by another dam, near Eklutna Lake, that impounded the lake's water for hydropower. All of the water in the lake that would naturally flow into Eklutna River was allocated to generating hydropower for the growing city of Anchorage. All of it.

As a result, the upper stretches of Eklutna River are dry and even the lower river, which collects water from several tributaries, doesn't support as many salmon as it did prior to 1929.

A consortium of electrical utilities – including Anchorage Municipal Light & Power, Chugach Electric Association, and Matanuska-Susitna Electric Association – bought the rights to the hydroelectric facilities and all the water in the lake from the federal government in 1997. As part of the purchase agreement, the consortium agreed to investigate ways to restore the Eklutna River watershed to some semblance of its pre-1929 condition. A rational person would assume this might include spilling some water from the lake into the river to re-establish salmon runs.

It won't be easy. A local entrepreneur, Frank Reed, and federal bureaucrats long ago decided that the water in Eklutna Lake is for generating electricity, not fish. Decades later, in 2002, Mike Dillon, supervisor of the Eklutna Power Plant admitted, "We don't like to spill water. For us, water is fuel."

Well, not entirely. In 1986 the hydroelectric facility agreed to sell some of its "fuel" to the Municipality of Anchorage to augment the city's public water supply. Accordingly, the municipality is allowed to consume up to 72 million gallons daily, although the water treatment plant can only process about half of that volume now.

Hydropower is a clean and relatively cheap source of power. Eklutna Lake is a pristine and seemingly boundless source of drinking water. It's hard to argue that electricity and drinking water aren't critical resources for Anchorage residents and the People's Republic of China.

Bottling water for Asia

Yes, you read that correctly. Some of the water that is too precious to be flushed downstream to restore salmon habitat is being shipped to China in little plastic bottles.

A local company, Alaska Glacier Products, has tapped into the source of the municipal water supply because it happens to come from a glacier. Their bottling plant is located near the Native Village of Eklutna.

Eklutna Lake's glacial origin is a marketer's dream in Asian countries that have polluted their water supplies. Pristine water from Alaska is worth a lot of money to millions of foreign consumers with cash to spend on bottled water.

According to Alaska Glacier Products' website, ice-age glaciers "bestowed us today with the finest resource of drinking water for human kind."

Furthermore, "over 80 billion gallons of this fresh nurturing drinking water are available for the world to enjoy every year."

Whoa. The world? I thought this was Alaska's water. Apparently not. Former Mayor Dan Sullivan gave Alaska Glacier Products a thumbs up to export the water in 2013.

In addition to China, AGP is selling Eklutna Lake's water to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and India. However, because those countries don't have nearly enough thirsty customers, AGP has also started shipping water to the Western U.S.

According to CEO Joe Van Treeck, only about 10 percent of its total production is currently being shipped to international markets.

Restoring flow to Eklutna River

How much water is AGP taking out of Eklutna Lake?

According to a claim confirmed by Van Treeck, "to fill growing international demand for their water, Alaska Glacier Products plans to scale its output capability to 100-150 shipping containers of fresh Alaskan glacier water every month." Each shipping container holds 5,000 gallons of bottled water shrink-wrapped on pallets. In other words, the plant is capable of bottling and exporting 500,000 to 750,000 gallons of Eklutna Lake water every month.

Van Treeck says the current production is about one-third of that volume, or as much as 250,000 gallons per month. That might represent the proverbial drop in the bucket for re-establishing a salmon run in upper Eklutna River. Even at maximum output, what's being bottled would remove only about 25,000 gallons per day, or almost 0.04 cubic feet per second.

If selling water to Asia is good business, that figure may grow in the future. Van Treeck hopes to "increase the capacity," because "we can bring the world a great tasting drink of water."

I shared that figure with Brad Meiklejohn, Alaska state director of The Conservation Fund, a private, nonprofit organization planning to remove the defunct 1929 dam as the first step in restoring salmon to the Eklutna River. His response? "That's 25,000 gallons a day we don't have now."

In its Eklutna River Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Technical Report, completed in 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated normal summer flow over the obsolescent dam to be about 10 to 15 cfs, with less flow during the winter. That's enough water for salmon to swim some distance upstream once the dam is removed. But the upper river will still be dry.

There are options for restoring stream flow. While the consortium of electrical utilities was given all the water in Eklutna Lake, some of the water never belonged there. Two tributaries were tricked into flowing into the lake. Bulldozers rerouted Thachkatnu Creek, which used to flow into Eklutna River about 800 yards below the lake's outlet. A smaller tributary on the south side of the river was captured when the latest storage dam was built below the lake's natural outlet in 1966.

It would be no great feat of engineering to reroute the two tributaries into the dry riverbed below the storage dam. Their flows have not been measured, but I've seen salmon spawning in streams the size of Thachkatnu Creek.

The rights of fish

The idea of Alaska's pristine drinking water flowing to China is a little hard to swallow. In recent years, China has sold U.S. consumers infant formula laced with melamine, poisonous toothpaste and pet foods, seafood contaminated with antimicrobial agents, defective automobile tires, and toxic children's toys. Would you buy bottled water from China?

But I don't mean to pick on Alaska Glacier Products. It's a locally owned company with 15 employees. Venture capitalism. Value-added product. Alaska business. Local employment. That's all good.

Van Treeck seemed intrigued by the concept of sharing Eklutna Lake water with salmon, and mentioned the desire of residents of nearby Eklutna Village to restore salmon runs in the river. "We see value in that too," he told me recently. "We're neighbors in their domain."

The owners and workers at AGP have a right to live here, raise a family, make a good living. It's time to grapple with an equally compelling bundle of rights. The right of a fish to its water, water to breathe and spawn in. The right of a hungry bear to its fish. The right of a Native people to one of its most important resources – water – a right first severed by a dam builder on land never sold or lost in battle, then sold off by an anonymous official.

Rick Sinnott is a retired wildlife biologist who worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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