Voices from the river

Voices from the River: Deadbeat dams

Photo by Eric Booton

By Eric Booton

In the summer of 2015, I spent a week with my family on the Olympic Peninsula. We hiked in Olympic National Park, fished for humpies in the salt, and took a field trip to check out the recently liberated Elwha River whose dam had been re

moved and documented in the film Damnation.

The crackdown on deadbeat dams was gaining momentum and I intended to be a part of it by helping defend Alaska’s mighty Susitna River from the unfortunate fate so many other salmon rivers have met. On one of our relaxing mornings while cruising social media over a cup of coffee and watching pink salmon boil in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I stumbled across an article in the Anchorage Daily News titled, “Death to a deadbeat dam on the Eklutna River.”

Being captivated with dams and dam removal at the time, my eyes immediately fixated on the title as I was eager to learn about a 70-foot deadbeat dam, only 30 miles away from my home in Anchorage, that I didn’t even know existed. Shortly after news broke on the effort to remove the Lower Eklutna Dam, the Southcentral Alaska Trout Unlimited Chapter hosted Brad Meiklejohn, Alaska State director of the Conservation Fund, to learn more about his efforts to see the dam torn down. Not surprisingly, local TU chapter members were eager to be more involved.

The Conservation Fund and Eklutna, Inc completed the removal of the Lower Eklutna Dam during the summer of 2018. This is a monumental occasion for salmon who can now access 22 miles of upstream habitat for the first time in 89 years and for the people of the Eklutna tribe, whose namesake river was dammed, and salmon runs nearly wiped out without notification or consultation.

The story of the lower Eklutna Dam removal would not be complete without highlighting some of the historic events that led up to its removal. The Lower Eklutna Dam was built in 1929 and became useless and abandoned when the Upper Eklutna Dam was built in 1955 and effectively halted the outflow of the naturally formed Eklutna Lake. In a 1991 agreement, Chugach Electric, Municipal Light & Power, and Matanuska Electric Association purchased the Eklutna Power Project (which included the lower and upper dams, power plant and associated infrastructure) from the Alaska Power Association in a screaming deal that that allowed them to forgo the FERC licensing process and delay mitigation for the impacts of the project until 2027.

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Photos by the Anchorage Daily News

Now that the deadbeat Lower Eklutna Dam has been removed, there is still more work to be done to make this restoration a success and bring salmon back to the river. As noted earlier, the Upper Eklutna dam currently does not release water from Eklutna Lake but instead pipes water from the lake to a small power generating facility, releasing it into an entirely different watershed. Access to upstream habitat for salmon has been restored but adding water to the Eklutna River is both paramount to salmon spawning and rearing, and completely achievable without risking Anchorage’s access to drinking water and electricity.

On Sept. 22, over 150 Alaskans and members of the Eklutna tribe came together at Eklutna Lake to celebrate the removal of the dam and highlight the need to release water from the Upper Eklutna dam daily to allow for salmon to make a full recovery. It was powerful to line up with other celebration attendees and participate in a “bucket brigade” passing hundreds of buckets up and over the earthen upper dam and spilling them into the dry river bed where the Eklutna River should be flowing.

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Photo by Eric Booton

Did the buckets we pass make a difference? No, not really. But those buckets did engage a large group of Alaskans who will go to bat for the river in the future. This story has and will continue to show us that people power, combined with science, is exactly what we need to return water the Eklutna.

Trout Unlimited Alaska and the Southcentral Alaska Trout Unlimited Chapter will continue to track the obligated mitigation of the impacts of the Eklutna Power Project by Anchorage utility providers to ensure that water is returned to the river for fish and the people of the Eklutna Native Village. In the coming months a film telling the story of the Eklutna River, that is being produced by Alaskanist Stories and Patagonia, will be released and screened throughout the Southcentral area. Please watch for screening announcements on email and social media. But in the meantime, share the exciting news about the dam removal and celebrate this noteworthy victory for fish and the members of the Eklutna tribe.

Eric Booton is the sportsmen’s outreach coordinator for TU’s Alaska Program. He lives and works in Anchorage.