OPINION: We have a once-in-a-generation chance to restore the Eklutna River

The Idluytnu, more commonly known as Eklutna River, watershed is a beloved place known for its incredible beauty and many recreational opportunities. The area is also home to one of the oldest villages in Southcentral Alaska, the Dena’ina Village of Eklutna, which our ancestors founded on the banks of the Eklutna River because of its historic runs of Chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon. Since time immemorial, our people were fed by the Eklutna River. Salmon returning by the thousands swam past the village, climbed the canyon, spawned, and finished their lives in the lake and its tributaries.

Our life-giving food source and important cultural connection dried up when the Eklutna River was dammed. Hydroelectric projects have blocked the flow of water for 94 years, devastating our once-thriving salmon populations. Now, after nearly a century of inflicting harm on Eklutna people and salmon populations, the operators of the remaining dam are legally obligated to address the project’s damage to fish and wildlife.

However, the Draft Fish and Wildlife Plan recently proposed by Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association, and the Municipality of Anchorage fails to address the harm to fish and wildlife. Their plan releases water a mile downstream of the lake through an existing Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility (AWWU) pipe, leaving a mile of the Eklutna River completely dry. This plan would prevent fish from accessing critical habitat in and around Eklutna Lake and its upstream tributaries, equating to 65% of the available watershed habitat. The sockeye salmon population needs access to the lake for spawning and rearing or they will not recover. From the AWWU portal, they would return less than 3% of historic flows to the river. The plan claims it can bring back 99% of salmon habitat when only returning 3% of the water to the river; the math simply does not add up.

Additionally, the Draft Fish and Wildlife Plan has an estimated cost of more than $57 million. They propose to cover the cost with utility rate increases and Anchorage municipality tax increases.

Finally, this draft plan endangers the Municipality of Anchorage drinking water system. The utilities want to shift an unknown burden to AWWU drinking water supply infrastructure instead of taking responsibility for the harm to fish and wildlife from the dam.

The utilities’ draft plan clearly fails to meet the legal obligations and falls embarrassingly short of responding to the public calls for restoring the river from thousands of Alaskans, including the late Don Young. That is why, instead of wasting ratepayer and taxpayer money on a plan that won’t solve the problem, the Native Village of Eklutna and partner organizations are putting forward a sensible, more cost-effective compromise that entails simply removing the Eklutna Lake dam. Our compromise fully reconnects the river to the lake and returns the water flows needed to support the river and fisheries.

We understand the utilities’ near-term reliance on this energy source, which provides 2-3% of the Railbelt’s energy. We propose a reasonable timeline of removing the Eklutna Lake dam within the next decade when replacement renewable energy is expected to be available. Two nonprofit community partners, with strong reputations in dam removal projects in salmon country, have agreed to source funds for the dam removal.


For many decades, the Eklutna people have strived to be good neighbors to Anchorage, Eagle River, Chugiak, Palmer and Wasilla.  When the city was looking for school sites, new trails, airport easements, or more housing, we were there to help. Now we are asking for help in return. The process is barreling towards a decision as the utilities intend to send their draft plan to the governor for approval later this year, and they are accepting public comments now. Without public outcry, we could miss this opportunity to restore the Eklutna River. We are asking for our neighbors to support our effort to remove the Eklutna dam and return salmon to a river of importance to all of us. It is time for the operators of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project to answer for the harm done to Eklutna’s salmon and people. With dwindling statewide wild salmon populations, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring salmon back to this once bountiful Southcentral river.

Aaron Leggett is a Dena’ina Athabascan artist and educator from Anchorage, and is currently serving as the President of the Native Village of Eklutna Tribal Council since 2018.

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