Opinions

Restoring the Eklutna River is long overdue

As the weather gets warmer, many of us are pulling out our camping gear and dusting off our kayaks to get ready for summer. If you live in Anchorage, chances are you’ll be spending some time visiting the Eklutna Valley this season. Eklutna Lake is the go-to spot for many Southcentral Alaskans because it’s the perfect place to hike, bike, kayak, camp, and bask in the beauty of our state -- and it’s right in our backyards! You may have spent time in and around Eklutna Valley, but do you know the history of the Eklutna River?

The Eklutna River was once a thriving salmon stream that supported fish habitat, a robust ecosystem and the Indigenous people of the land for generations. More than 90 years ago, the river was dammed without the consent of the Eklutna Dena’ina people to create the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project, which provided electricity to the growing city of Anchorage. Unfortunately, the construction of the two hydroelectric dams has reduced what was once a flourishing ecosystem with a powerful river into a slow trickle of water and a sediment-filled river bed.

Thankfully, there have been ongoing efforts to restore the Eklutna River. The electric utility companies who own the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project are obligated by law to mitigate the impacts and reduce the ecological harm that the hydroelectric dams have caused over time. They must implement measures to enhance fish and wildlife in the best interest of the public. Currently, the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project owners are working with local, state and federal entities and various other stakeholders to spearhead the process of restoring the Eklutna River.

As these significant players undergo the legal process of restoring the river, the communities surrounding it have not been silent. In December, the board of directors of Chugach Electric Association — one of the owners of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project — received just under 500 pledges of support from Alaskans. They are eager to see the complete restoration of the Eklutna River.

The Anchorage Assembly, Anchorage Watershed & Natural Resource Advisory Commission, Native Village of Eklutna, and most recently, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) have passed multiple resolutions endorsing the ongoing efforts towards complete restoration of the Eklutna River. AFN’s resolution recognizes the all-too common degradation of salmon-producing rivers and streams in Alaska that have held nutritional and cultural value for Alaska Native people through time immemorial.

With the removal of the first, now inoperative dam in 2018, we see water and salmon slowly returning to the Eklutna River, but we still have a long way to go. Right now, the responsible parties and stakeholders are beginning their first years of studies to develop a program for restoration in the future. With the support of communities, we can make sure that this ecologically and culturally significant historical salmon stream sees a complete restoration. It’s far past time that we get water and salmon back to the Eklutna River.

Nabi Qureshi is a Community Organizer at The Alaska Center working on the Eklutna River Restoration Project. Learn more about the Eklutna River restoration and sign your name in support by visiting the website: https://www.eklutnariver.org/

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