This paper was written as part of the 2002 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.
The Eklutna River Project
Throughout history, Alaska has been known for certain attributes and qualities that make it unique and incredible. People travel from around the world to take in our picturesque scenery and breathtaking wildlife. One of the most well known entities within Alaska is the steady run of salmon our state possesses. From the mighty king, to the vibrantly colored sockeye, strong salmon runs and Alaska have previously been thought to be synonymous. Yet for some areas of Alaska, this once prevalent resource has now been depleted due to the devastating effects of industrialization, global warming, over fishing, and habitat destruction.
Eklutna Native elders recall a time when the salmon runs in the Eklutna River were so abundant; that it seemed one could walk across their backs without ever falling into the water. This remembered abundance is only a vague recollection as Eklutna Natives are faced with a river whose red salmon population is almost completely depleted. While a decline of the red salmon in the upper Cook Inlet may be caused by global warming and over fishing, Eklutnaís problem is definitely a loss of habitat. It is actually descending to a level of natural catastrophe while area businesses claim to be completely unaware of the growing problem.
Among the primary causes for the decline of the sockeye species is a twin set of hydroelectric dams, one at the base of the Eklutna River Valley, located approximately two miles from the Glenn Highway, and the second at the mouth of Eklutna Lake (Weiss, 2001). The first dam, inactive and nonfunctional for approximately sixty years, acts as a barrier to the sockeye salmon attempting to travel upstream with its sixty-eight feet of concrete. The second, owned by a consortium of Electric companies, not only acts as a physical impediment to the salmon, but also cuts off the water flow so that they have no water to travel in (Lamoreaux, 2001). A second cause for the sockeye depletion can be attributed to the dumping of waste and harmful chemicals into the river as lazy citizens throw their unwanted items over the steep drop-off instead of taking them to the dump (Manning, 2001). This, combined with the dams, creates a situation of pollution and depletion of water that make it very hard for the salmon to survive.
Among the solutions that are being considered to correct the damaged environment are a variety of projects. The first is the formation of a committee of people who are both affected by and concerned about this habitat. This committee would include representatives from the Tribal Council of Eklutna, the consortium of electric companies who currently own the rights to the dams, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS), and concerned citizens (Moncrieff, 2001). This committee would be tasked with the responsibility of restoring the habitat so that all concerned achieve their goals. Some solutions being proposed are the removal of the dysfunctional dam, adding a spillway to the upper dam, restoration of the habitat for fish, restocking the lake and river with red salmon, and monitoring the area until the red run is reestablished. Currently, there have already been some efforts made to clean up the water, including multiple community cleanup days that collected large amounts of trash and harmful chemicals from the ecosystem, and tests performed to assess the health of the lower river (Lamoreaux, 2001).
Currently, the majority of funding for the project is from private donations from businesses and the communities involved, as well as a variety of government grants (Simonds, 2001). Among some of the potential organizations that have grants available are the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USF&W, ADF&G, and the Army Corps of Engineers. It is hoped that through increased awareness, cooperation between the partiesí concerned, financial and regulatory support by the government, and help from volunteers, the Eklutna River habitat can be restored to its previously bountiful condition.
It has come to the attention of the Dimond High School National Ocean Sciences Bowl Team (NOSB) that there is a problem within the Eklutna community. During the 1950ís, before Alaska became a state, two dams were built by private parties, one on the lower river and one at the mouth of the lake, that effectively closed the Eklutna Lake and its river system to the run of sockeye salmon that once flourished there. In the past, the salmon were so plentiful that elders say they could cross the creeks along the backs of the fish, but it is now rare to see any sockeye salmon in the Eklutna River valley. The Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) cannot get to the Eklutna Lake because they cannot climb the 68 feet of the first dam nor can they swim the gravel path to the next dam.
The Native village of Eklutna is located at the head of the Knik Arm near the mouth of the Eklutna River (see Figure 1), and it was first founded by the Athabaskan Indians around 800 years ago (Simonds, 1995). The people of Eklutna live an urban subsistence lifestyle that includes fishing for salmon using an educational fishing permit for 500 salmon per year (Lamoreaux, 2001). Unfortunately, the dwindling numbers of salmon has heavily affected this way of life.
During our research, we found that sockeye salmon live in cold, northern waters. They are anadromous, meaning they live in the ocean until maturity but require freshwater to spawn. After spending two to four years in the salty, oceanic waters, mature salmon return to their natal streams and lakes to spawn in the summer and fall. Almost all spawning takes place in streams that are connected to lakes, although some groups spawn in lakes or in streams not attached to lakes (Morrow, 1980). Freshwater systems with lakes produce the greatest number of sockeye salmon (Weiss, 2001), so it is, therefore, important to the Eklutna River valley that Eklutna Lake be accessible for the sockeye salmon.
The salmon that were unable to get to the ocean from the lake before the dams were built, evolved into an entirely new subspecies. These salmon are known as kokanee, a dwarfed variety of the red salmon that spend their entire lives in freshwater (Morrow, 1980).
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), the numbers of sockeye salmon has fluctuated and declined in Cook Inlet (see Fig. 2). Presumably the major causes are over fishing and global warming. There was a large dip in the early 1970ís of the number of sockeye salmon that had been caught through commercial fishing. Since then, the numbers have been steadily rising with a few gradual declines and one major dip between 1995 and 1998. The numbers were at an all-time high (at least for recorded history) in 1995 but now seem to be declining again.
All of these factors have had their impact on the Eklutna River fish. Still, the major impediment to their numbers in this system is the loss of habitat related to the dams.
Causes and Effects
There are many causes for the current depletion of the number of Sockeye salmon in the Eklutna River Valley. The main cause is the drastic water flow changes of the Eklutna River as a result of the two dams and secondarily, massive pollution. The first, old dam was built in 1928, but it was inefficient and malfunctioned. For this reason, it was abandoned but left in place, blocking the salmon from their spawning grounds in the upper river. The dam is partially collapsed and plays no part in aiding Alaskans whatsoever. Chugach Steam and Electric built the second dam in 1952 to run a power plant and provide hydroelectric power and drinking water to Anchorage and surrounding towns. It had a fish ladder that never worked well and was replaced in 1970, but the second one did not work well either (Simonds, 1995).
Both of the dams caused changes in the water flow of the Eklutna River. Less water is flowing down the river, making the river too shallow for the salmon to swim upstream. There is no flow of water from Eklutna Lake to the river because Chugach Steam and Electric will not release any, even though they have more than enough water for their needs and would be sacrificing very little if they did release some. They gained total control of the water flow in 1952 when the second dam was built, prior to Alaskaís statehood (Gilbert, 2002). The only water flow in the Eklutna River comes from the rest of the watershed. The river, downstream from the dams, is now running at only 15 percent of its original flow (Donat, 2001). The first damís location in the river is right at the upper end of the intertidal area. Because the Sockeye salmon are anadromous, they need to spend some time in brackish waters in order for their bodies to adjust to the fresh water environment when traveling from the ocean, and to a saltwater environment when coming from the freshwater lake (Morrow, 1980). The 68-foot dam stops the fish from traveling upstream to the lake, period. The salmon need to be able to get all the way up to the lake because that is where they would spawn. The large dumpsite in the valley also contributes to the problem by slowing the flow and polluting the waters with heavy metals and chemicals.
Another issue affecting the Sockeye population is the increased amount of sediments that have built up behind the dams. Salmon prefer to spawn in clearer waters, so the more sediments there are in the Eklutna waters, the more discouraged the salmon get from venturing up the river and laying their eggs (Morrow, 1980). Removal of the massive accumulation of sediments behind this dam will need to be completed before water is allowed to flow down the valley. Many of the eggs that are laid in the redds are smothered and killed by excess sediments (Donat, 2001). The sediments that will be released by removing the dam are a major concern.
A third issue is the large amount of pollution that has been collecting in the river. For example, people who wanted to get rid of their junk cars would simply push them over the edge of the steep side of the cliff into the river. Others just dumped all sorts of debris over the cliff edge through the years creating a major problem. The Eklutna Tribal Council had a concrete barrier built to discourage this type of dumping, but the old debris remains to this day dramatically increasing the pollution levels of the Eklutna River Valley as it corrodes in place (Lamoreaux, 2001). This junk pile not only causes water pollution, it collects sediments and decreases the water flow of the river. Other forms of pollution include some military waste that need to be identified and removed by the Army.
The final critical problems in the Eklutna environment correspond to those that occur in an oceanic environment. Global warming of the oceans where the salmon spend up to five years of their lives can be a major problem. The ocean may be becoming too warm for the salmon to live in, or too warm for the species that the salmon eat to live in. The warmer waters force these feeder fish to move to cooler areas, both farther north and deeper. These species include primarily zooplankton, a variety larvae, small adult fishes, and occasionally squid (ADF&G, 1994). A predicted doubling of the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will drastically reduce the Sockeye salmonís habitat to only around one half of their current suitable oceanic habitat (see Figure 3). The salmon would be forced to follow their food source into waters farther north, and would, therefore, have to change their migration patterns, and/or move their spawning areas farther north (PFEL, 2001).
The other oceanic cause of depleting salmon populations is predation, including both human and animal. Many people fish each year in Cook Inlet for salmon, including tribes, other Alaskans, and people from all over the contiguous United States and the rest of the world. Sport and commercial fishing are very popular activities in this area. The Dimond High School NOSB Team believes that the main reason that Sockeye salmon do not come up into Cook Inlet and then into the Eklutna River, is because commercial fishing at the mouth of Cook Inlet takes a large percentage of the fish that are trying to swim into the area leaving very few that actually make it to their home grounds to spawn. The Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishing harvest through August, 2001 for Sockeye salmon is 1,814,290 fish, which makes up 87.66% of the total of all five species of salmon caught (ADF&G, 2001). Human predation, along with predation by animals (various species of bears, eagles, and other animals, and even salmon eating the eggs of other salmon in search of food) is another cause of the declining salmon populations in the Eklutna River Valley.
The diminished salmon populations are affecting Eklutnaís economy. Though Eklutna is one of the smaller towns in South-central Alaska, tourism still plays a role in its economy when people come up to stay at the lake for recreation, or to visit the Eklutna Tribeís visitor center, burial ground, and the Old Russian Orthodox Church. If the salmon populations were restocked, it would most likely increase tourism because people would stay longer with the opportunity to fish for the salmon. The only species of salmon they would not be fishing for would be the king salmon since it is currently illegal because of a population slump in the area.
Finally, the residents of Eklutna are being forced to spend money out of town, buying food and other products for themselves and for their dogs instead of relying on the salmon as a main resource. The urban/subsistence lifestyle desired by this community is not possible without a strong red salmon run.
The first step to help resolve this problem is to create a council that will consist of people who have a vested interest in the Eklutna River resources and want to help restore them. The main groups include representatives from the Eklutna tribal council, Chugach Electric Consortium, the fishing industry, the local, state, and federal governments, local citizens, and representatives from any other interested parties. Their tasks will be to share their concerns and their individual goals, analyze the problem, and come up with viable solutions acceptable to all. We think that the first order of business for this council should be to ask for an environmental impact statement. Prior to statehood, there were no regulations to interfere with Chugach stopping the flow of the water and ultimately destroying the salmonís habitat. Since statehood, however, our constitution requires that fish habitats be maintained if not enhanced (Alaska Constitution, 1959).
The primary goal of the Eklutna tribal council is to restore the red salmon run to the Eklutna River valley. The main goal of the local government is to increase commerce in the area. ADF&G and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to meet the constitutional mandates by restoring the habitat, restocking the salmon runs, and regulating the use to sustain the run. Chugach wants to continue to control all water flow and produce as much electricity as possible without spending any more money (Gilbert,2002).
The first priority toward restoring the habitat is to remove the lower dam. One of the primary deterrents to the removal of the 68-foot dam is that there is a backfill of gravel and sediment that has piled up over many years with absolutely nowhere to go. Until there are definitive answers to the effects that the sediment might have downstream and if that amount of sediment may be flushed naturally or removed by machines, the dam will remain standing. When and if the time comes to remove the dam, a fish ladder or a gradual stepping slope will need to be built in place of the dam (see Figure 4). The ladder or slope will be built so that the fish coming back from the ocean will be able to jump up the ladder and return to the lake to spawn (Lamoreaux, 2001).
The Eklutna River has no original water flow coming from the lake that reaches the lower dam. There is only about 15% of the historical river flow coming from the watershed. The small amount of water that is currently flowing is not nearly enough for the fish to travel back up the river. The Dimond NOSB Team feels that the Chugach consortium controls more than enough water flow to produce power and drinking water,with enough left over for the fish. The Eklutna Lake has approximately 600 cubic ft/sec. of water flow. Seventy cubic ft/sec. provides the fresh water for Anchorage, and the rest is used to produce 5% of the hydroelectric power to the grid that serves Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley (Lamoreaux, 2001). This leaves more than enough water flow to provide for the salmon.
Restoration of the habitat has already begun in some areas. Volunteers have started cleaning up some of the smaller trash that has been polluting the area. Larger objects such as cars, appliances, and oil drums, have yet to be removed. The cleanup project planned for the larger objects will be very difficult and dangerous. A large crane with a 70-foot boom and a 250-foot cable will need to be rented to haul the objects up the steep cliff. Cleaning up the canyon is definitely worth the price, as long as we have the access blocked so it does not happen again (Johnson, 2001) In the summer of 2000, a concrete barrier was built across the path leading to the edge of the cliff, blocking access to the primary dumping site. Cleaning of the riverbed and the riparian area from the lower dam down to the flats should be repeated every spring.
The Corps of Engineers is scheduled to deepen the ponds in the mud flats, that empty into the Knik Arm, to at least six feet so they do not freeze to the bottom in the winter. These ponds provide an area for the reds to adjust, prior to entering or leaving the sea (Morrow, 1980).
After the river is cleaned up and the fresh water flow is increased, many tests will need to be done prior to restocking with fish. These tests will include conducting sound, biological studies to insure the stocked sockeye will survive on their own and establish themselves in the Eklutna River basin (Kiehn, 2001).
After the restocking of the fish, monitoring their new ecosystem will be very important. Monitoring may include pre-emergent fry sampling, return counts, and escapement calculations. The new sockeye will be monitored for as long as ADF&G has funds to pay for these efforts (Donat, 2001).
The Eklutna River is listed as a negative waterway, which means that ADF&G fishing regulations do apply. One example is that salmon 16 inches or smaller may not be taken from the area. Also, as of now, the fishing regulations prohibit the harvest of king or sockeye salmon (ADF&G Regs., 2001). After the reestablishment of the run, new regulations will need to be written. The Dimond NOSB team suggests that the sockeye should remain illegal to harvest until the population is healthy and stable.
Cost and Funding
The costs of the Eklutna River Project are a major factor in restoring this habitat for red salmon. The major cost will be restructuring the upper dam to include a spillway that will allow water to be released into the system. According to Chugach Electric, it will cost at least one million dollars to do this (Gilbert, 2002). Since the dam belongs to them, the cost will be theirs also. They are not in a hurry to spend that kind of money for this project.
In a personal conversation with Water Quality and Aquatic Environment Project Coordinator, Elijah Donat, we were told that the old hydroelectric dam, built in 1928, has the possibility of costing absolutely nothing to be removed. He said that the military might be willing to blow up the dam with their explosives for training purposes. Otherwise, the cost to blow up the dam and remove the sediments could cost up to $250,000.
He also told us that the cost of restocking the red salmon population might be eliminated if the landlocked kokanee salmon are freed from the lake. This would allow the red salmon to spawn in the river, eliminating the need for restocking. By implementing this method, the red salmon would be able to reproduce naturally. We donít know that this method would work, nor how long the process would take. ADF&G estimates that $100,000 would be needed for restocking efforts (Weiss, 2002).
The Army Corps of Engineers said that they could remove the vehicles and other debris from the bottom of the river canyon for about $60,000. It would be a difficult and dangerous task, but possible with the right equipment and expert workmen.
While funding the Eklutna River Project is an enormous expense for the native village, many grants are available to assist their efforts. The following list of grants is available for the Eklutna River Project:
Along with these grants both private and public donations are being made available. It would seem that this project has the support of many groups. One of the private corporations, the Coastal America Program, funds ideal projects based on the amount of need and the nature of the project. The Eklutna River Project is currently on the list for funding through this organization. Since this organization is primarily made up of private corporations, the amount of funding depends entirely upon the corporation who decides to fund the project. This organization will also come up with a proposal for federal grants through the Department of Governmental Coordination.
The Eklutna Village Council spent $30,000 of their money along with some grant monies over the past two years trying to get this project off the ground. They hired Dr. Marc Lamoreaux as Natural Resources Director to oversee the project. He has worked hard trying to increase awareness throughout the surrounding communities, assess the health of the habitat, organize the groups involved, coordinate the clean up efforts, and continue the search for solutions as well as funds. We applaud his efforts.
One of the most pressing questions is whether the Eklutna River Project is important enough to spend the time, energy, and resources necessary to restore this area. It depends mainly upon who you are asking. Of course, everyone wants the cleanup of harmful waste and trash to occur. It is the more specific aspects regarding mainly the dams and the water flow that cause more controversy. What each component of the suggested committee actually wants is a vital aspect of the overall picture.
The Eklutna Tribal Council heads up the list with their need for the fish to maintain their lifestyle and culture. They want the older of the two dams removed, and the second dam to begin allowing either spillover or a spill gate run off that will provide adequate habitat for the red salmon to travel and spawn. They also want an environmental impact study to be conducted so that it can be made apparent that the dams are causing the problems for this ecological system.
In direct opposition to the wants of the tribal council, are the needs of the electric consortium. They do want the water to be cleaned up from the toxic dump at the base of the cliff, but they do not want anything to do with decreasing the amount of water they utilize for the production of electricity and the provision of water to the Anchorage community. At this time, they do not want to spend the money required to restructure the upper dam. They want to maintain total control of the water flow, so they have no desire for any type of environmental study that might change the status quo.
The U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish & Game want an environmental impact study done to determine the best way to restore the habitat for fish and to meet constitutional compliance. They want to see a solution that will be equitable for all parties involved with their primary concern being that if any action does take place, it should be carried out in a cautious and environmentally sound way.
It is the overall opinion of the Dimond NOSB Team that the Eklutna River Project should be carried forth as soon as possible. We support the formation of a council, and an environmental impact study to be performed immediately. We believe that the only way for the habitat to be restored for fish is to remove the lower dam, haul away the excess sediments, restructure the upper dam with a spillway, and build a ladder up the cliff so that the fish have access to the lake. We also believe that the available grants be applied for immediately in order to keep the project moving.
It is important to the Eklutna residents to maintain their urban subsistence lifestyle. Restoring the salmon run to the river is an integral part of meeting that goal. It is also important that we comply with the Alaska state constitution and maintain free-flowing waters for the survival of our salmon resources.
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