Water Helps

Eklutna River before water release (photo by Alex Troutman, Blackfish Media)

by Scott Sadil

This spring I was sitting in on one of those weird Zoom gatherings, trying to pay attention to a computer screen set up on Joe Kelly’s dining room table, listening to John McMillan talk about the return of salmon and steelhead to the Elwha River since dam removal began there in earnest a decade ago. Then a fellow came on the screen talking about Alaska’s Eklutna River.  

At that moment I couldn’t have told you the difference between the Eklutna and the Kwethluk, the Aguluwok, the Togiak, or any of a dozen other Alaska rivers that had drifted in and out of my consciousness without enough coherent or concrete details to separate one from the other.

Eklutna River before then after water release (photos by Alex Troutman, Blackfish Media)

What I gathered, anyway, was that the Eklutna, not far from Anchorage, was yet another example of a little river that had had a plug of concrete wedged between its canyon walls, the first step in generating electricity for a sudden influx of immigrant Anglo-Americans, while at the same time blocking all upstream access to spawning grounds historically used by sea-run or anadromous salmonids.

Old story, that.

Yet there was more to it.  As is often the case in such matters, a host of other changes followed the construction of the original dam; once you’ve crippled local runs of anadromous fish, why not plow ahead?  While Anchorage continued to grow, a diversion dam was built higher in the Eklutna drainage, creating a reservoir that sent water through a four-mile pipeline, running through the mountains to the turbines inside a new, larger, hydroelectric plant. 

Eklutna River Dam, before and after. Photos by Ryan Peterson

Now, according to the fellow on the computer screen, for much of the year there was little or no water running in the lower Eklutna. This all but obliterated runs of five different salmon species, even though the original dam was breached and removed in 2018.  

“No water in the river,” I said to Joe.  “That’s a problem for fish.”

Yet, in news released this week by Eric Booton, Eklutna project manager for Trout Unlimited (the fellow who spoke during the Zoom meeting last spring), the Eklutna River will, by the time you read this, be flowing once more.

That’s right: after 66 years, water is finally going back into the Eklutna River – at least temporarily.

I’m not eager to unravel, right here, the complex narrative that still awaits the restoration of the Eklutna and, with luck, its runs of native fish.  The release of water into the lower river is, writes Booton, “part of an instream flow study that will help inform how to fix the river.  Under an agreement signed in 1991, local electric utilities are now engaged with NVE (Native Village of Eklutna) and state and federal regulators to remedy impacts of hydro-power operations on the Eklutna River.  That process, begun in 2020, is scheduled for completion by 2027.”

If you know anything about this sort of legal process, you know that Booton’s statement is loaded with implied or hidden obstacles looming ahead for the Eklutna.  And it’s probably worth noting that a growing number of opponents of salmonid restoration projects are now arguing that with ocean conditions being what they are, efforts at the local level are of little or no value.

What we know for certain, however, is that wild, sea-run fish evolved through eons of radical changes in both climate and oceanic conditions. Any species that has made it this far, we can assume, has what it takes – given half a chance – to endure.    

And I can tell you this, as well: If you don’t have water in the river, you’re going to have a tough time finding fish.


Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil still recalls his shock the first time he saw the Snake River, trickling through bedrock, during summer irrigation season.