OPINION: By fixing the Eklutna River, we can restore a salmon stream in our backyard

It’s salmon season again! We’re off to the Kenai, the Kasilof, Chitina or Bristol Bay to fill our freezers and grills with the bounty of Alaska. Instead of a three-hour drive to your favorite salmon river, imagine one 20 minutes from downtown Anchorage or Wasilla. The Eklutna River could soon be your salmon destination.

The Eklutna once had a bounty of salmon, including the largest kings in Upper Cook Inlet, and sockeye so numerous the Eklutna Dena’ina claimed they could walk across their backs. The Eklutna now is a pale shadow of its former self. A century of abuse has left salmon barely hanging on in a tiny trickle that passes unnoticed under the Glenn Highway. Hydropower projects in 1929 and 1955 diverted the river for the growing city of Anchorage, leaving a dry riverbed below Eklutna Lake.

We have a rare opportunity to put Humpty-Dumpty back on the wall. In 2018, the Lower Eklutna River dam was removed in a high-profile $7.5 million effort. Despite that success, the river still runs dry. Now, Chugach Electric, Matanuska Electric and the Municipality of Anchorage can be heroes by restoring water flows that allow salmon to once again swim from the sea to their spawning grounds in Eklutna Lake.

With restored flows and no barriers to fish, the Eklutna could be a salmon fishery to rival the Kenai. Like the Kenai, the Eklutna originates in a dramatic turquoise blue lake and flows a short distance to the sea. Like the Kenai, the Eklutna still supports all five species of salmon. Unlike the Kenai, salmon in the Eklutna cannot access their spawning grounds to complete their lifecycle.

The vision of a restored Eklutna River has been endorsed by the Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska’s Congressional delegation, the Anchorage Assembly (twice), community councils and thousands of residents of Southcentral Alaska. Yet we still face an uphill battle. Why?

The power companies are actively fighting to prevent salmon from reaching their spawning grounds. The power companies have cast doubt on whether salmon could even survive in Eklutna Lake when the lake is already full of landlocked sockeye trapped by the dams and malnourished because they can’t reach the sea. The power companies assert that salmon could taint our drinking water and that the puny Eklutna River is too powerful for salmon to navigate. The power companies are threatening severe rate hikes as the cost of helping Eklutna salmon.

The power companies had 27 years to get ready for this moment. When they purchased the Eklutna Power Project from the federal government in 1997, they were given a 25-year grace period to prepare financially to fix the Eklutna River. Instead, the power companies did nothing to get ready for this overdue bill. Somehow Chugach could afford the $1 billion purchase of Municipal Light & Power, but now they turn their pockets out to reveal only lint for the fish. Chugach Electric and Matanuska Electric claim that Eklutna hydropower is the cheapest on the grid, but, like Chilkoot Charlie, they cheat the salmon and pass the savings on to you.


Alaska can do better than this. For a state that prides itself on careful salmon stewardship, a salmon river that runs dry is a black eye. After a century of neglect, the Eklutna River and its salmon deserve to be set free.

The only chance most of us will see in our lifetimes to repair the Eklutna River is right now. As mandated by law, the power companies must atone for drying up the Eklutna River. But the utilities are backing a plan that will leave a dry riverbed for the next 35 years.

Hydropower does not count as clean energy if it comes at the expense of Alaska’s ultimate renewable resource, which is salmon. Newly installed battery storage, rapid adoption of energy-efficient technology, and expansion of solar, wind and micro-hydro are creating a new energy future for Alaska. We no longer need to degrade the climate and decimate salmon just to turn the lights on.

Brad Meiklejohn led the effort to remove the Lower Eklutna River Dam in partnership with Eklutna Inc. and the Native Village of Eklutna. He works as a senior representative for the Conservation Fund.

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