OPINION: Eklutna’s balance between habitat restoration and affordable power

The owners of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project deserve kudos for their work over the past five years on their proposal to protect, mitigate damages to, and enhance the fish and wildlife habitat in and along the Eklutna River affected by the project. Chugach Electric Association, Inc., Matanuska Electric Association, Inc., and the Municipality of Anchorage took ownership of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project in 1997, and were legally bound at that time to a 1991 agreement that they work with state and federal authorities every 35 years to study the impacts of the project, and then propose a program to enhance and mitigate damages to the river and the fish habitat while also considering what that mitigation program would mean for the city’s water supply, recreation, power generation and other factors. The owners started this effort three years earlier than required by the agreement in order to get it to the governor, who has final approval of the proposed program. In 2019, the project owners got to work evaluating ways to fulfill these obligations and convening conversations with relevant governmental authorities, the Native Village of Eklutna, several other interested groups and residents of their service areas.

I want to thank the project managers for thoughtfully considering what can be done, given the competing needs of all parties. It is easy to paint a process like this as a cut-and-dried story of right and wrong. I have read about the disagreements over what the ultimate outcome of this proposed plan should be. Should the hydro project be torn down altogether? Should the project be left as is? It is never simple, and I believe the participants in this public process have thoroughly considered the pros and cons of the available options. The answer, as is often the case, will lie somewhere in the middle.

It has been more than 100 years since infrastructure that affected the river was first built. In the intervening century, the natural state of the waterway has been altered by many parties along many points of the river, bringing it to its current state and ultimately preventing the salmon that all Alaskans love, and Alaska Native people rely on for both nutritional and spiritual sustenance, from spawning as they would have for thousands of years before permanent construction marked this area. The project owners considered this, and have offered a collection of first steps toward restoration of the natural habitat. There is much work to be done, and it will require significant investment of time and capital. It is unreasonable to expect today’s co-op ratepayers and taxpayers to immediately bear the full cost of undoing 100 years of changes to the habitat.

The owners of the Eklutna Hydroelectric project should be lauded for aptly balancing the two things they must do: begin restoring the river habitat, and provide reliable, resilient and affordable power to their member ratepayers — the present-day residents of from Anchorage to Moose Pass to the south, and Eagle River and the Mat-Su region to the north.

I believe salmon may again inhabit the Eklutna River in abundance, and that it can be done while protecting the source of 90% of Anchorage’s water supply and maintaining the renewable power asset that provides low-cost, reliable electricity to thousands of Alaskans. I am eager to see the Proposed Final Plan accepted by the governor, and the protection, mitigation and enhancement measures get underway.

Larry Bell serves as executive manager of the Alaska chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association,and a Matanuska Electric Association cooperative member for 40-plus years.

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