October 1, 2018|By Brad Meiklejohn| Water
Taking down the Eklutna River dam has been unlike any other project I've had in my 25 years at The Conservation Fund. We've protected a huge amount of land in Alaska in my tenure—over 300,000 acres—but nothing has captivated people as much as this project. 

10 1 Eklutna Dam AK c Mike Cameron201809282 For centuries, salmon had open passage up and down the Eklutna River. Their habitat drastically changed in 1929 when the Eklutna Dam (pictured here) was constructed to provide hydro-powered electricity for Alaskans in the nearby growing city of Anchorage. The 26-foot tall structure was decommissioned and effectively abandoned in 1955. Since then, it remained an impediment to a free-flowing river, with silt and sediment building up over decades. Photo by Mike Cameron.

Often our work is invisible. In land conservation, if we are successful, nothing happens. People often only notice our work if we fail, and the land gets developed with a parking lot or a subdivision. 

But we've reached a point in history where land conservation is not enough. We need to start undoing some of the damage that has been done to our land, our rivers, and our heritage. Restoration is the new frontier of conservation. And people have a thirst for fixing things, for putting Humpty Dumpty back up on the wall. Restoration is very positive work, and I think that has been a large part of the popular and political appeal of this project.  

10 1 MapIn 2015, we decided it was time to restore the salmon run by tearing down what I termed a “deadbeat dam.” Partnering with the Native Village of Eklutna and the Eklutna Native Corporation, work on its removal began in the spring of 2017. As the map above depicts, elimination of the dam opens the possibility of five species of Pacific salmon to be able to move upstream toward Eklutna Lake for spawning habitat. At the time, no water from upstream Eklutna Lake flowed into the Eklutna River, which had been reduced to a thin stream fed by other tributaries.

Alaskans don't agree on much, but, as one politician said, “we put salmon before God and guns.” Alaskans love salmon, and thankfully we've still got lots of salmon, partly because we haven't built dams on most of our rivers. 

But in this case, we built a series of dams that nearly wiped out salmon in the Eklutna River and essentially “broke” the river. When this dam was built 89 years ago, salmon were abundant and the interests of Native people were overlooked. Amazingly, the fish have held on for 89 years with very little water and lousy habitat conditions. Now that we've torn down the Eklutna River dam, we expect to see the salmon numbers rebound, and hopefully Alaskans will learn from this that dams and salmon don't play well together. It's time to give back to the Native people of Alaska and to fix some of the things that we broke.

10 1 Eklutna AK c Brad Meiklejohn10 1 DamCrane

The Fund and our Eklutna partners raised over $7.5 million to bring in the equipment—including the largest crane in Alaska (right)—and expertise to take down the dam. Project support was provided by the Rasmuson Foundation, the Open Rivers Fund of Resources Legacy Fund, the M.J. Murdock Trust, the Marnell Company, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through its Alaska Fish and Wildlife Fund and ConocoPhillips SPIRIT of Conservation Program, the Alaska Community Foundation, Patagonia, Trout Unlimited, New Belgium Brewing, the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund, the Mat-Su Salmon Habitat Partnership, and Wells Fargo. Photos by Brad Meiklejohn. 

The final section of the dam—its thick concrete base—was blasted away in the summer of 2018.  

With the lower dam removed, the next step is to find ways to restore normal water flows to the Eklutna River. On September 22, 2018 we joined the Native Village of EklutnaTrout Unlimited Alaska and The Alaska Center in celebrating the historic dam removal in Eklutna, Alaska. More than 150 people gathered at the eastern shore at the outlet of Eklutna Lake. They formed a bucket brigade line and moved water from Eklutna Lake into the river to symbolically begin the eventual flow of water that will restore the river and its habitat for salmon. Removing the lower deadbeat dam was the first step in returning sufficient water to the river so that a salmon run can be re-established—an important milestone after nearly 90 years of neglect.

10 1 Eklutna AK c bucket brigade Brad Meiklejohn 1 Water from Eklutna Lake found its way bucket by bucket into the Eklutna River, with help from more than 150 participants who helped us celebrate the dam’s removal.  Photo by Brad Meiklejohn.