Eklutna River Renaissance
Story by Eric Booton
Photos by Ryan Peterson
Since time immemorial, southcentral Alaska’s Eklutna River, a glacial stream in Northern Cook Inlet traditionally known as Idlughetnu, was replete with fish, much like the ones we anglers fantasize about to see us through the work week. Anglers from around the world pinch pennies for decades to visit and finally catch a wild Pacific salmon or tussle with trophy resident fish like those that once filled the Eklutna. Today however, the river exists as a mere shadow of what it once was.
My hunch is that a straw poll would reveal many Alaskans’ relationship with “Eklutna” is limited to signs on the Glenn Highway. Some recreationists might think of the Eklutna Lake Recreation Area, and anglers are likely to think of the popular Eklutna Tailrace fishery, which isn’t even naturally attached to the Eklutna River system. Given this, when we cross the river on the highway, it’s nearly impossible to consider the fishery that with a small amount of effort, we could have once again within a matter of years.
Once a substantial river, the Eklutna historically flowed at levels comparable to the nearby Eagle River, a volume of water one wouldn’t anticipate when sizing it up nowadays from the road. Nearly all the water that once filled its stream banks is diverted through a mountain and released at the Eklutna Tailrace before running into the main stem of the Knik River, the neighboring river system to the north.
The tailrace is a popular spot to target Chinook or coho for dinner, as well as a great place to hook young anglers on the rewarding pursuit of salmon. Reliant on hatchery-produced juvenile salmon from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the Tailrace isn’t a place for solitude. It’s a place for catching and is consistently open to harvest even when other nearby streams are closed. While the small, artificial channel of emerald water emitted from a power plant is a good spot to set up a lawn chair with the family and wait for a bite, it’s a manufactured experience.
Dena’ina elders from the Native Village of Eklutna share stories of their history featuring the Eklutna River as a critical source of food and a site for tribal traditions. However, today the Eklutna, along with many other nearby rivers, have been consumed by Alaska’s largest population centers and are limited or closed to salmon or subsistence fishing.
Today, the Eklutna River is now largely dry, save for some trickling tributaries and brief flows after major rain events. The five species of wild Pacific salmon that once returned to the Eklutna River have suffered as a result.
In 2017, the Eklutna River made headlines as efforts by Eklutna, Inc. (the tribal corporation established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) and The Conservation Fund to remove the lower Eklutna dam that blocked fish migration for nearly 90 years had began in earnest.
The lower dam was a relic from a long-defunct hydroelectric project. Built in 1929 and coming in at 61 feet tall, it was an impressive structure that provided electricity for the growing city of Anchorage. Since inception, the dam routinely struggled with glacial sediment building up and was ultimately abandoned after being replaced by a second iteration on the river.
By fall of 2018, the herculean effort to remove the lower Eklutna dam was complete, a milestone met with immense celebration by the Native Village of Eklutna and Alaska residents who had caught wind of this historic event and closely followed its progress. Just under two years later, the stretch of river impeded by the dam sports a fresh and ever-evolving look as the drizzle of water erodes the wall of built-up sediment and slowly reestablishes the river’s path.
Removing the lower dam, which had no fish ladders or other means to aid salmon’s journey upstream, allows salmon to access more than eight miles of spawning and rearing habitat that will be critical to seeing a full return of the species to their historic home.
But, there’s a catch. A second, replacement hydropower project was constructed at the outlet of the naturally-formed Eklutna Lake in 1955. This newer project includes the upper Eklutna dam that also completely blocks salmon migration into and out of the lake. Also constructed was a pipeline that diverts essentially all the lake’s outflow through the iconic Twin Peaks mountains along its north shore into the neighboring Knik River watershed and the Eklutna Hydropower Plant where power is generated before the water is released into the Eklutna Tailrace. This upper dam and hydropower project effectively turned off the spigot providing water to the river downstream.
With the artery of water fueling life on the Eklutna River severed by the diversion and dedicated to other uses, several miles of riverbed below the lake is dry and all upstream habitat is inaccessible to salmon. What little water exists in the lower portions of the Eklutna River is the product of groundwater and various minor tributaries that trickle into the mainstem before entering the marvelous and little-known Eklutna River canyon, before flowing past the former site of the lower dam and converging with Thunderbird Creek. From there, it’s just a few short miles before its journey to Cook Inlet is complete. But considering the primary source of the water, the Glenn Highway sign labeling the stream might as well say Thunderbird Creek, at least for now.
Though the lower dam no longer blocks fish access to the roughly eight miles of habitat between the lower and upper dam sites, lack of water and blocked migration to the lake and habitat upstream of it remain significant hurdles. Removing the lower dam was phase one. To restore the river, step two includes adding fish passage around the upper dam to fully connect the river system. From there, work will be needed to restore the riverbed in order to kickstart its usefulness to fish.
Fundamentally though, the second step in bringing salmon back to the Eklutna begins, quite logically, with adding water for fish through releasing it from the dam at the lake.
Currently, all of Eklutna Lake’s water is diverted away from the riverbed. 90% of that water goes through the power plant at the tailrace, even if the turbines are not spinning, contributing less than 5% of Anchorage’s power. The remaining 10% of the water travels through the Anchorage Waste Water Utility plant and provides 90% of the municipality’s drinking water.
Since most of us think in terms of fish, let’s consider water usage like harvesting a sockeye for the freezer. In 2020, Anchorage will get the delicious belly meat in the form of drinking water, utility companies are getting the highly sought crimson filets and the rest of the fish to fuel its power-generating turbines. Of this metaphorical salmon, zero is left for, well, the salmon, not even a lone scale. In other words, not a drop of water goes to Eklutna’s fish, though water is available to do so.
With the lower dam no longer in place, the largest barrier to salmon migration has been removed. Now the task of restoring the Eklutna River’s once-mighty salmon runs is at hand. There’s plenty of water for power, drinking, and fish, but the steps in seeing each component through require close collaboration and a will to give salmon the extent of what they haven’t had for nearly a century, which is access to the entire system and enough water to spawn and rear.
Southcentral utility providers are legally obligated to mitigate, or make up for, the impacts of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project in the coming years. Soon, they and the State of Alaska will decide what steps should be taken to help make the river whole. This means now is the time to think big and make it known that fully restoring this key, Southcentral salmon stream is a top priority for residents, Alaskans, and anglers.
Salmon and steelhead populations are dwindling throughout their native range, including in Northern Cook Inlet where chinook and coho populations have struggled in recent years, leading to routine fishing closures. Angler opportunities are limited and the sportfishing industry has felt these impacts. Given this trend, restoring access to historic salmon habitat is paramount to ensure we provide salmon every possible chance to thrive.
Beyond the opportunity to restore the nearly lost salmon runs of the Eklutna River, we must also consider the impact the downfall of the fishery has had to residents of the Native Village of Eklutna. Today, the Eklutna people, who once harvested the bounty of their namesake river as a key source of sustenance, culture and tradition, are comprised of generations of tribal members who never had this opportunity. Reconnecting the fish to this river will reconnect people to their history.
The story of the Eklutna River and its renaissance as a river of fish is still being written. From what we have witnessed on Washington’s Elwha River and other salmon streams where fish passage has been restored, the future for the Eklutna River is bright. In Alaska, there is a demonstrable will from anglers, residents, and the Native Village of Eklutna. So how do we get a salmon-filled Eklutna River? By working together to provide the two basic needs these fish have been missing: water and access.