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Utilities reject Anchorage Assembly’s call for a 2-year pause on Eklutna dam mitigation

In World
February 19, 2024

Feb. 18—Three Southcentral Alaska utilities that own the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project rejected the Anchorage Assembly’s recent call for a two-year halt to their proposed program to restore water flow and fish to the long-dammed Eklutna River.

The federal government sold the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project to the utilities under the terms of the 1991 agreement, which outlined the ongoing, legally-required effort to mitigate impacts of the earthen dam at the base of Eklutna Lake. The dam has dried up much of the 12-mile Eklutna River since it was built by the federal government in 1955.

In a resolution earlier this month, the Assembly opposed the utilities’ draft Fish and Wildlife Program and asked for the delay in order to better asses the array of options and their potential effects. Assembly members in the resolution cited concerns over impacts to the city’s drinking water and cost impacts for utility ratepayers and property taxpayers, among several other points of contention.

On Monday, the dam’s owners — the Chugach and Matanuska electric associations and the Anchorage Hydropower Utility — countered the Assembly’s assertions in an 8-page letter to Assembly leaders.

The project owners “see no path to pausing the process required under the 1991 Agreement without liability,” the utilities said. “Accordingly, we will not delay the implementation of the Fish and Wildlife Program for two years in order to perform additional analysis, consultations and coordination.”

The agreement — a contract between the State of Alaska, two federal agencies and the three utilities — does not include a provision for extensions or changes to the process, nor does it empower an entity to grant extensions or make changes, the utilities said in the letter.

Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel said in a written statement, “it’s unfortunate that the utilities won’t do the reasonable thing and take a pause.”

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The utilities’ $57 million plan would use the city’s existing water supply infrastructure to replenish flow to 11 miles of the river via a portal valve, often called the “portal valve alternative.”

“Several entities have raised questions about the effectiveness of the portal valve and it appears that there is no room to reexamine the option or other alternatives regardless of the impacts to rate and taxpayers,” Zaletel said.

The utilities released their proposed Fish and Wildlife program late last fall, a major step in the historic effort. The window for public comment on the plan closes Feb. 19, and it could go to the governor for review and approval as soon as April.

In recent months, the mitigation effort has been marked by disagreement over how the program should move forward: The Anchorage Assembly and the Alaska Native village of Eklutna want water flow restored to the full length of the Eklutna River and passage for fish into the lake, while the utilities’ proposal would leave one mile of riverbed dry directly below the dam.

The utilities’ plan could bring water to most of the riverbed as early as 2027, but it would not restore salmon to Eklutna Lake and to mountain streams that feed the lake.

Zaletel and other Assembly members had voiced concerns about changing federal regulations for drinking water that could increase the municipality’s dependency on Eklutna Lake.

“To be clear, we would never propose any action that would compromise or threaten the Municipal water supply,” the utilities said in their letter Monday.

Last month, the Native Village of Eklutna, Assembly leaders and conservation organizations proposed total removal of the dam in the next 10 years, and only after replacement sources of renewable energy are created.

The utilities have strongly opposed the idea. In Monday’s letter said they are assessing the costs, risks and benefits of the new idea, but that Anchorage’s own water utility harbors concerns about the potential effects to the city’s water supply.

[ Electric utilities push back on proposal from Native village and Anchorage Assembly leaders to remove Eklutna River hydropower dam ]

The letter included two attached communications: a December letter from the utilities to Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, requesting an assessment of the dam removal idea, and a response from AWWU General Manager Mark Corsentino, dated Feb. 1, outlining AWWU’s initial assessment and concerns.

The water utility could be impacted in numerous ways, and those impacts would require further study and risk assessment, according to Corsentino’s letter. Changes in lake levels and water quality could affect the infrastructure, including the possibility that the current water intake might not work during periods of low lake level, he said. Uncontrolled flows of the reestablished river could scour and expose the water main and “threaten AWWU’s ability to reliably provide water.”

Removing the dam could also complicate the city’s water rights, maintenance of the pipes, and roads and bridges used to access the system, according to Corsentino’s letter.

“The importance of Eklutna Lake for public health to meet community drinking water and fire protection needs cannot be overstated, as it provides over 90% of Anchorage’s water supply,” Corsentino said.

AWWU is not taking a position on any of the proposed options, including dam removal, he said.

The Assembly has also voiced concerns over impacts to the city’s water, and hired an engineering consultant who analyzed the draft program portal valve alternative and found it to be “fatally flawed.”

It would result in fish kills, because the portal valve can’t provide adequate restoration of water flow and can’t keep water flowing year-round without interruption, the consultant’s report said.

The utilities said the consultant’s analysis is “fundamentally flawed and out of date.”

Regular and unplanned maintenance would stop the river flow, the Assembly’s consultant said.

The plan accounts for those scenarios, the utilities said.

“We have specifically designed the Eklutna River Release Facility to avoid dewatering the Eklutna River and fish kills,” the utilities said in the letter.

Any planned maintenance to replace the intake valve could take place in the fall, when water could be released at the dam instead, they said in the letter.

The utilities pointed to dam removal and restoration work in Washington state that has been estimated to cost more than $350 million, including measures to protect water treatment and supplies, though they said that “may or may not” be indicative of potential costs to remove the Eklutna dam.

While the Assembly’s resolution called the portal valve alternative “self-serving” and said it “fails to protect the broader public interests of the Municipality of Anchorage,” the utilities rejected those assertions.

They investigated a total of 36 alternatives, they said.

“To be frank, we know of no alternative that, when compared with the Eklutna River Release Facility alternative, establishes similar year-round instream flows, creates as much fish spawning and rearing habitat, while also protecting the public water supply and without exposing ratepayers and taxpayers to significantly higher costs,” the utilities said in the letter.

The dam also supplements Southcentral Alaska with cheap power. The utilities also say the hydropower plays a critical role as the Railbelt faces an impending shortage of its main energy source, locally-produced natural gas.

During the recent cold snap, when Southcentral Alaska’s natural gas utility came close to being unable to deliver natural gas, the Chugach and Matanuska electric associations maximized use of the hydroelectric project “to maintain system reliability during a time of critical operations.”

Assembly members earlier this month acknowledged the natural gas issues and said they aren’t necessarily calling for the damn’s total removal, but seeking more time to more deeply analyze the options, costs and impacts.

The Assembly’s resolution came shortly after the revelation that the city’s water utility had signed a binding term agreement with the hydroelectric project owners last fall, before the release of the draft program. Assembly members called for its public release, but the utilities have kept the agreement confidential. (The Assembly reviewed the document in a closed session.)

Assembly leaders said the agreement, and its timing, called into question the utilities’ public process to develop the program and said it clouds already poorly-understood impacts to utility ratepayers.

The utilities defended that decision in their letter to Assembly leaders. The term sheet, which outlines the terms and conditions which AWWU would provide use of its infrastructure, is binding in its basic terms, they said. But the term sheet will be terminated if the governor does not approve the draft program, they said.

It remains unclear what the exact terms in the agreement are, how they intersect with the dam mitigation project or how they may impact the city’s water rights and water rates.

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