Alex Gimarc: Removing the Eklutna Dam

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By ALEX GIMARC

Must Read Alaska reported a few weeks ago that the Anchorage Assembly asked the legislature to approve removal of the Eklutna dam, ostensibly to rebuild a salmon run gone for at least a century. 

This is the same Assembly majority that has managed to turn the homeless problem in town into a festering sore on the body politic.  That festering sore has been financially lucrative for one of their members (Meg Zaletel) who they have determined not to have a conflict of interest.  

With the decision to support removal of the Eklutna dam, the Assembly manages to get themselves into the energy business, and into the ever-contentious Cook Inlet fish wars while they pander to the 70 or so members of the Eklutna Tribe, something that apparently makes them feel good.  The rest of us, not so much.  

Their request is so well thought out that I am reminded of PJ O’Rourke’s observation:

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

With this recommendation, the Assembly majority has finished the whisky and is inserting the car keys into the ignition.

A deeper dive into the three issues revolving around the removal of the Eklutna dam is probably worth our time.  From here, the issues include the following.  There are likely more, but this is a start:

  • Electrical generation
  • Anchorage water
  • How many fish?

The Eklutna hydro station has been operating since 1955. It was sold to the three electric utilities, Chugach, MEA and ML&P in 1991. That sales agreement set a 30-year clock on returning the river to its natural state. Chugach and MEA published a draft of their Fish and Wildlife Program in Oct. The fourth utility involved is AWWU, as Anchorage gets 90% of its water from the same infrastructure used to generate electricity.

Eklutna hydro generates 40 – 47 MW of clean, reliable, carbon free electricity, just over 5% of all electricity generated in the Railbelt. The Eklutna dam raised water level in the lake some 24’ from its natural level. That natural level changes throughout the year based on snowmelt. The intake is at the bottom of the lake, 60’ below the current surface. AWWU’s water comes off a tap to that piping system.  

Advocates for removing the dam believe there is enough water available to support rebuilding the salmon runs, generating electricity and supplying water for Anchorage if the dam is removed. The immediate question is how will this water be allocated? Whose needs are most important? Our experience in the endangered species world is that the needs of the fish ALWAYS override those of the humans (delta smelt in California and snail darter in Tennessee).

Today, 90% of the flow is used for electrical generation. 10% of that flow is used for drinking water. Cut that flow in half, and output from Eklutna hydro will necessarily drop by a similar percentage.  The intake was blocked for some weeks to months following the 1964 quake by an underwater landslide.  It can be blocked again.

Additionally, there are two stocked salmon runs below the Eklutna hydro plant in its tailrace that need continual waterflow.  

Perhaps the best analysis of Eklutna lake for the presence of salmon was a Sept 2017 paper by Loso, et al. They found no direct evidence in cores taken from the lake bottom for a red salmon population, though Eklutna tribal elders promised them they were a fishing village before the first dam was built in 1929. 

Total population estimated entirely on Eklutna oral tradition is in the vicinity of 1,000 reds/year. It is up to the reader to determine how valuable those 1,000 fish/year are, especially since very few of them will be caught.

Note that salmon here in Upper Cook Inlet are gregarious. Silvers exploit flooding, spawning in places far outside their normal creeks and streams.  All five species of salmon go up Rabbit Creek, as they also do in Campbell Creek. Very few salmon go up Eagle River. There is a small red run up a closed creek on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.   

If the Powers That Be make the decision to remove the dam, they will base that decision on all the “trust me” claims by the advocates like the Eklutna Tribe and Trout Unlimited that there will be no noticeable impact if the dam is removed.  Of course, the advocates have no response other than trust me to questions about replacing lost electrical generation and what happens when the water levels are too low to support current water use during a dry year(s).

I would suggest the following questions be answered before any discussion of dam removal:

  • How do you plan to provide drinking water for Anchorage in the event of low water levels in the lake? Who or what makes the allocation decisions?  And who or what has priority?

  • How do you plan on replacing 5% of Railbelt electrical generation with something that is at least as clean and reliable as hydro?  That generation needs to be online before the dam is removed.  Nobody has it budgeted.  

  • What impact of reduced water flow has on the two stocked run at the Eklutna tailrace?  Do the needs of the new Eklutna fish outweigh those of the stocked fish in the tailrace and their user group?  If so, why?  

I always get worried when all the Usual Suspects demand immediate action to right an environmental wrong, especially when their response to all questions are “trust me.”  I get more worried when the Rocket Scientists on the Anchorage Assembly are onboard.  

We might get lucky. This might work out nicely. But the costs and pain level should it not will be substantial in terms of cratering electric reliability and drinking water availability. Are those costs and that risk worth the feel-goodism associated with removing yet another dam? Should be an interesting discussion.

Alex Gimarc lives in Anchorage since retiring from the military in 1997. His interests include science and technology, environment, energy, economics, military affairs, fishing and disabilities policies. His weekly column “Interesting Items” is a summary of news stories with substantive Alaska-themed topics. He was a small business owner and Information Technology professional.

39 COMMENTS

  1. Anchorage has repeatedly elected a Politburo determined to destroy Anchorage.

    Anchorage voters see this, and either still can’t be bothered to vote, or approve with dystopia.

    Sorry Anchorage. Did it to yourself.
    You worked very hard to get here. Enjoy your feudalism.

  2. It us very concerning if the Anchorage Assembly is behind the dam removal. Their decision-making results are NOT the best. Homelessness in Anchorage, for instance!

  3. The comment “How do you plan on replacing 5% of Railbelt electrical generation with something that is at least as clean and reliable as hydro? That generation needs to be online before the dam is removed. Nobody has it budgeted.” is the most needed question that always needs to be asked, however the most uncommon question to ever actually be asked. Especially as the ever woke assembly members who have no practical skills with utility operation are quick to weigh in. Hydro is the greenest reliable power available and should never be quickly dismissed.

    • Once the dam is removed the price of electricity will go through the roof . That will lead to conservation . Most all the issues facing Anchorage are from elected officials . You folks better start voting and figure it out .

      I would also suggest putting Alaska Fish & Game take charge of the homeless population in downtown Anchorage . It’s worked wonders in the interior . They’ve mostly managed the moose to non existence in Tanana Flats .

      I heard the other day that the homeless meals in Anchorage consist of Cheerios and milk . I’d like to see the federal grant monies given to Alaska for the homeless . I bet the administration costs are through the roof .

      Please don’t send any more bus loads of Anchorage homeless to Fairbanks. Crazy fricken plan , I mean really ? We got enough problems up here .

    • They can’t think that far ahead . All they care about is adding the cost of removal to the current electrical rates . They get the electrical rates high enough , it’ll look better on importing the gas they hate so much from Canada . This same mindset is trying to shut the Healy coal mine down for methane releases . Plenty of gas in CookInlet to produce . One of the largest gas wells on the planet is the well drilled in North CookInlet that blew out in the early sixties . Flame was seen by astronauts.

  4. OTHER QUESTIONS:
    What is the estimated cost of this Donny Brooke?
    What is the cost benefit analysis?
    How does this improve the lives of ‘all’ Alaskans?
    What is the cost to Taxpayers and electric Rate Payers?
    Why is this even ‘necessary’ and for what gain?

  5. The Anchorage Assembly is run by people who do not comprehend science, or engineering. Take away clean, renewable hydro, and we are going to be more reliant on fossil fuels- such as coal. Coal combustion is responsible for most fish being contaminated with toxic mercury. The mercury is released when the impurities found within coal (mercury, strontium, uranium and their radioactive isotopes) are released during combustion.

    If you support fish, you should support hydro.

  6. Regarding the replacement power of Eklutna Hydro, in a time where utilities are demanding more “renewable” energy how exactly does removing “renewable” energy further that goal?

  7. Never underestimate the extent of the suicidal, and homicidal, nature of self-loathing radical leftist extremists.

    Their ultimate target? Civilization itself.

  8. What a bunch of idiots. The most reliable and responsible method of generating electricity and the crazy’s
    want to curtail it’s electricity output.
    Replace it with what?
    As far as the fish, there is not a shortage of fish in Cook Inlet that is a myth. If you want salmon you can catch salmon by a variety of methods in Cook Inlet.
    If the local Eklutnaites are wanting exclusive fishing by destroying the dam that provides them with electricity. Then the Eklutna tribe which is largest land owner in the MOA needs make this known to the rest of the affected people.
    This is a red herring to divert attention away from the issues that the Anchorage Assembly should be addressing.

  9. What is often poorly understood about green energy, primarily wind and solar, is how utilities must deal with the intermittent nature of these sources. The grid must always have enough power available for peak demand, and if there is a green energy supply shortfall then “rolling reserves” must be available almost instantly, with sufficient capacity to make up the shortfall, or the grid will go down. Depending on the extent of a power outage, it can take hours to get the grid back up and power restored to all customers. It is difficult to find a better source of instant power than hydroelectric. If those who are pushing for using green energy sources are serious, and are concerned about reliability and costs, they need to think about what is available to provide these rolling reserves. Other possible alternatives are batteries or operating fossil power plants connected to the grid, which are inefficient at low loads when on standby waiting for a green energy shortage. Large fossil power plants can’t be started instantly, and even gas turbines can take several minutes or more to come up to speed and go on-line to deal with shortfalls.

  10. A few summers ago, I went out to Eklutna Lake for the first time since 1973. The Lake was so low and far from shore you could barely see the water.

  11. Will the Assembly allow for “discussion” on this issue?

    Thank you for bringing all of these issues to our attention.

  12. This has no parallels to the famous Columbia river problem down south. It is just a publicity stunt that promises to make a few bucks. And if they were to follow through with the idea, it would only accelerate Anchorage’s transition to a ghost town, not to say they need help. The state should be working on building a large airport outside of Anchorage where the population the growth is staggering. And finishing Port Mackenzie. Scrap the bridge idea and let the Port of Anchorage rust. It was a bad idea when the railroad chose Anchorage as their hub based mostly on the inexpensive real estate at the time. Never was a great location.

  13. Good column. Leave it to liberals not to think things through. Perhaps we can burn more dwindling, soon to be imported, natural gas to make up for it. And good point on the freshwater supply; Anchorage has been blessed with this abundant resource of cold, clean water, requiring minimal treatment, that most cities would love to have — lets threaten that too — lets have rationing when we have a dry year so we can feel good about a thousand more salmon. As usual, lunacy.

  14. In southeast Alaska there is evidence of villages having been established on every salmon creek and river of any size. A village would sit there harvesting the salmon until either there were no more salmon in the run or another group of Natives (tribe is a colonial concept, I suppose) came and forced the villages to pack up and leave (those not killed, that is). So salmon runs were continually depleted, over-fished. The best salmon rivers required the best warriors.

    It was the same way with timber but not until ANCSA was there enough technology and resources to over-harvest timber. The 12 village corporations in southeast have, for the most part, each left a 23,040 clear-cut. It will be old growth again in about 500 years, but at the moment much of it is in dog-hair spruce.

    Elder knowledge is a concept straight out of Hollywood e.g. Dances with Wolves, and Little Big Man.

    • Kayak,
      Sockeye salmon runs in Southeast have benefited from releasing Sockeye Smolt in lakes where the smolt rear prior to going out to Sea for their one year excursion.
      I suggest releasing Sockeye smolt into the lake , allow them passage out to Cook Inlet and leave the rest of the infrastructure in place.
      Everybody wins!

  15. Liberals will screw this up, just like everything else they get their hands on. They can’t help it. It’s in their nature.

  16. Alex: “The Eklutna dam raised water level in the lake some 24’ from its natural level.”
    The dam raised the water level in the lake periodically 24 feet above its normal overflow elevation. This allows the lake to store more water (energy) than it would naturally during times of high runoff. The stored water is then utilized for energy production during the winter months which draws the lake elevation below its natural overflow level by Spring. Many times I have observed the dam sitting high and dry. At other times the lake level is so high it floods the campground and lakeside trail. I am uncertain if a fish ladder was ever envisioned or constructed. It is a good question whether the Lake was ever a successful red salmon spawning or rearing habitat. However, the river itself certainly could have supported other salmon species. Also, Thunderbird Creek is a significant tributary to the flow in the Eklutna River although Thunderbird Falls is a block to salmon migration. My solution: bore a hole through the mountain to the headwaters of Thunderbird Creek to feed the upper reach of the Eklutna River.

  17. Sam McDowell once told me that while sheep hunting in Thunderbird Creek basin, he encountered a large amount of caribou bones and antlers which appeared to be the result of a mass casualty event likely caused by snow avalanche or starvation from (centuries?) before.

  18. The RCA is demanding a plan by the electric utilities in south central, come up with a plan for the loss of natural gas to generate electrical power. Now that Cook Inlet gas wells have less capacity to provide for electrical generation. So what do we do? Remove more power generation options for us. The Assembly has no idea what the heck they are doing.

    • Stacy, “so what do we do?”, ask why the wells have less capacity. Sort that little issue out and you solve the problem. Spoiler – it will include the government…..

    • Chugach Board was discussing importing natural gas from Outside 15 years ago when the same concern reared its head. Happily, new finds filled the need for another decade or so. In some ways we are in better shape this time around. We have a storage facility (depleted reservoir) and there is a LOT of natural gas out there available for import. Put a different administration in power in DC and I expect more natural gas will be found in Cook Inlet. Too many regulatory speed bumps these days to explore. Cheers –

  19. Legally the dam doesn’t have to come down.

    Are we really going to let 70 tribe members offset the true science and cause much higher rates and more pollution? Stupid is what stupid does.

  20. To Alex G: Can you (or someone else) tell me how to pronounce your last name? Is it G- mark or
    Gim-mark or Gah mark? I love your comments and used to love your letters to the ADN but it bugs me not to know how to say your name. Thanks, Gretchen O

  21. Pull your head out of the sand and Quit voting for the Assembly Marxist 9. I know it is hard to accept that you are Wrong when you support their agenda, but You are voting to make things worse for yourselves and Against your own best interests, not looking at the consequences of your actions. What happens to Anchorage and you when they implement this change? Does it cost you more? What else? Everything they do takes your money through more costs and taxes (yes, even you renters who will have to pay higher rent). They already are signing you up to pay for $400,000 toilets-do you have $400,000 toilets? Do you think you should have to work hard, pay for your necessities, then pay for everything for everyone else so they can have all the same stuff as you? Why is getting rid of the dam better than what is working now?

  22. Go ahead and give the people of Eklutna what they want. They will very quickly become another dying village with a diesel generator and a turd burner.

  23. The fact that the Eklutna CREEK, as it appears on much of the mapping and documentation from the dam construction survey and reports, would give lie to the claim it was ever a RIVER. The “river bed” will be devoid of water most summers and fall due to the lake level dropping in summer due to lack of runoff and the contiual depletion of the replenishment dividend from the Eklutna Glacier melt. This is just another BS move by the ever pandering idiots on the assembly, which always translates to the further impoverishement of the Anchorage private property owner.

    • Good point. the outflow “river bed” and lake level are at times in stasis under certain natural conditions. But 99% of the time there would be an outflow from the lake. This occasional low flow level would occur in May/June and then there would be more flow by the salmon run.
      It is the lowering of the lake by winter hydropower drawdown that stops the upper reach of the Eklutna River from flowing but rarely.

  24. Stocked salmon do not need constant water flow, they are released from fish hatcheries, spawn and die. Warmer temperatures will result in more run-off. There is adequate flow for restoring fish runs to Eklutna Lake, drinking water and some hydro power.

  25. If imported LNG will raise our current energy rates by 50%, surely drilling in Cook Inlet can cut into that increase by even less than doubling the current contract prices. Its all about price/demand leverage. As consumers and governments become more concerned about supply, they are more willing to make concessions and accept price increases.

  26. Another interesting fact is the original lower canyon dam blocked fish passage in 1941. I think the Eklutna River was probably a great river for King Salmon spawning. Probably silvers and maybe even reds. The red salmon lakes normally need to have some biological nutrients for production of food and I don’t think Eklutna Lake has/had much of that. The study indicated as such above. Not to say that there couldn’t have been a successful red population of some type.

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