Alaska Native corporation heads dam removal project

An old dam on the Eklutna River is destined for destruction. The dam is on Alaska Native corporation land, and it is hoped that when it comes down, salmon runs will return to the river. The demolition work is expected to be finished next year, but enticing fish back upstream could be another story, since an upstream hydropower facility has drained water from the river and there is not enough left for fish.

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But for now, we’re clustered around an I-pad in Eklutna, Inc’s conference room in Eagle River. Noel Aspiras, a land development specialist with the Alaska Native corporation, is showing drone video footage of the area around the deep ravine in which the old Eklutna dam is situated.

“Yeah, what I am using is a DJI Phantom 4, and as far as I am concerned, DJI is the leader in the drone market,” Aspiras said.

The drone in question is sitting on the conference table, in sharp contrast to the Alaska Native art and artifacts that decorate the walls of the room, as if its futuristic technology can somehow help reverse the damage caused by a century-old concrete structure that has frustrated the salmon cycle at the heart of Athabascan culture. Eklutna is the first tribe in the country to get involved in such a massive project, Nick Francis, Eklutna’s Chief Operating Officer, said.

“It’s only appropriate for the Native people that have been impacted for almost 100 years to be able to play a role,” Francis said. “They take pride in that, and it is important to them. So they are proud to be able to be a part of bringing the fish back. We haven’t heard of another story where the actual Native people are playing a part in the removal of the dam.”

The overhead video of the 250 foot deep canyon is dizzying. A huge crane, some 400 feet high, is in position above the site. It was erected this summer, and will be used to lower demolition equipment–bulldozers, and the like –into the ravine when the work starts in earnest next year.

The $7 million project is being funded by the Conservation Fund. Brad Meiklejohn, the Fund’s rep in Alaska, is the spur behind the effort to get rid of the 1920s vintage dam.

“This dam is an orphan dam,” Meiklejohn said. It really doesn’t belong to anybody. It hasn’t been maintained, so taking it down in a controlled fashion is better than the possibility of it failing catastrophically on its own at a very inopportune time.”

Meiklejohn said, so far, the work has gone smoothly, and has come in under budget. Four out of the five permits needed for the project are in hand, with one more to go..

“Because we are working in waters of the US, we need to get a what’s called a fill permit, because the discharge of the sediment behind the dam has the potential to impact waters of the US. We just applied for out last major permit with the Corps of Engineers,” Miekeljohn said.

That sediment Miekeljohn mentions, about 300,000 cubic yards of it, is a major problem. It has built up behind the dam for decades, and when the dam is down, it could wash downstream at such rate as to hurt salmon habitat, or damage state and Alaska Railroad infrastructure. Nick Francis picks up the story.

“So we’re only moving, mechanically, about 30,000 cubic yards out of the 300,000 cubic yards that’s behind the dam,” Francis said. “The rest of the sediment, the lion’s share of the sediment, dissipates through natural means, through water flow coming down the Eklutna River. Hydrologists did a model, and they said in as quickly as two years, even with the limited flow that we have, that could dissipate.”

Other dangers posed by the work include worker injury or a potential flood. Francis said both eventualities have been dealt with this year, with the construction of a helicopter pad in case of medical emergency, and an elevated “safety plateau” above the flood plan.

Dam removal work is on hold for the winter, but the plan is to resume the project in April or May of next year.

Although the work is on track, Brad Meiklejohn said the removal of the dam is only step one.. getting more water into the Eklutna River to encourage salmon runs will be the next, and probably the more difficult, step, because a consortium of utilities, Chugach Electric, Municipal Light and Power and Matanuska Electric, hold the rights to Eklutna Lake water.

“Right now that water is allocated for power, principally,” Meiklejohn said. “And so the power companies have a legal obligation to restore instream flows for the fish into the Eklutna River. So that’s the state of play right now. We’ve had a number of meetings with the power companies, so far generally cordial, and they understand that we are working to take this lower dam out with the expectation that water will be provided into the Eklutna River.”

Meiklejohn suggested that more water could be reserved for the Eklutna River if the old Eklutna hydropower facility is declared obsolete.

“Southcentral Alaska has a surplus of power production now. The Eklutna hydropower plant provides roughly 1% of power for Southcentral,” Mieklejohn said. “A new power plant that has come on line with Matanuska Electric Association on Eklutna [corporation] land provides more power than the Eklutna hydropower station. We think the best way to get the water back in the river is to close the old hydro plant. It was build in the 50s, it hasn’t seen a major upgrade, it’s likely obsolete. And we think the power is easily replaceable, so that’s what we are pushing for.”

Matanuska Electric Association spokesperson Julie Estey said the old Eklutna hydro plant provides MEA with a small but valuable contribution toward the utility’s Railbelt energy needs.

Meiklejohn said an 1991 agreement signed by the three power companies with federal agencies requires environmental mitigation to compensate for the power plant’s impact on the watershed. I’m Ellen Lockyer