Technical Insight: The Right Manager Makes All the Difference: A Look at the Eklutna Hydro Project

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Project Manager Samantha Owen really enjoys puzzles, and not just as something to occupy her spare time. Her day-to-day work involves managing the efforts being undertaken by the owners of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project near Anchorage, Alaska, to comply with a Fish and Wildlife Agreement from 1991. It’s a complex jigsaw of a process that is expected to take most of the decade, including development of a Fish and Wildlife Program and then implementation of that program. Owens’s work is a prime example of why a stellar project manager who is well versed in regulatory and natural resource issues can make such a difference on a project.

A Complex Situation

The first hydropower project on the Eklutna River was constructed by a private company in 1929. To meet the energy demands of the rapidly increasing population of Anchorage, the Federal government constructed a new hydropower project at Eklutna in the 1950s making the previous project functionally obsolete. In the 1990s, the Federal government sold the project to the three local utilities (Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association, and Anchorage Municipal Power and Light).

“Because the project was built by the Federal government, it did not have a FERC license. Whether or not the project would need a FERC license once it was sold to the three utilities was a major topic of discussion during the divestiture of the project,” Owen says. “These discussions resulted in the development of the 1991 Fish and Wildlife Agreement, which requires the new owners to quantify the impacts to fish and wildlife that resulted from the Federal hydropower development, propose measures to protect, mitigate impacts to, and enhance fish and wildlife, and take into consideration the potential impacts to everything in the basin, including public water supply, downstream infrastructure and recreation, overall a very holistic approach. So instead of FERC issuing a license for the project,  the Governor of Alaska will issue a Final Fish and Wildlife Program.” Some of the issues Owen and her team are ironing out include:

  • The Native Village of Eklutna, which traditionally used the river as a subsistence fishery, would like to see instream flows restored and construction of fish passage facilities at the current dam
  • The lower dam, constructed in the 1920s, was removed in 2017-2018; this has created extremely dynamic conditions in the river as the sediment that accumulated behind the dam is slowly being flushed downstream making it harder to conduct studies to determine how much water for instream flows would actually be needed to improve fish habitat
  • The Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility (AWWU) diverts water from the project, which supplies up to 90% of the public water supply for the Municipality of Anchorage; providing for fish passage into the lake could have negative impacts on water quality
  • In addition to AWWU’s pipeline and access road, the Alaska Railroad and Glenn Highway cross the river downstream of the dam; restoring flows to the river could negatively impact these bridges/infrastructure
  • The project is located within Chugach State Park; changes in the operation of the project could have significant impacts on recreational facilities and uses around the lake
  • The utilities that now own Eklutna are cooperatives, which means that any capital costs will be shouldered by the people of Anchorage in the form of rate increases
  • The dam itself is more than 50 years old, so it is classified as a historic resource by the federal government and is potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places

“There are many conflicting interests, and none of them are unimportant,” Owen says.

Great Managers Make Great Projects

Owen compares this project, and similar FERC licensing projects, to walking a tightrope between the needs of the utility and the needs of other stakeholders. “Your project manager for this type of project needs to be able to understand both sides of the argument and then think outside the box to find a solution,” she says.

He or she must be able to combine their knowledge of hydropower operations and regulatory processes with technical expertise and a deep understanding of the local environment, its population, and the government agencies that manage it. That’s where McMillen Jacobs really shines, Owen says.

“We’re there to help our client every step of the way. We excel at assisting clients with navigating this process from start to finish. We’re there with all hands on deck, ready to meet any challenge, conduct strategic planning exercises, figure out what the best process would be for that particular project, and then execute it.”

Owen expects the first phase of this project to be completed by 2024 with the issuance of the Fish and Wildlife Program by the Governor. The second phase will focus on the implementation of the program and is required to be completed by 2032.

“It’s a long, arduous, complex puzzle,” Owen says. “Which is actually weirdly fun for me.”

You can read more about the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project and follow its process on its website.


About the Author: Samantha Owen is a Regulatory and Licensing Specialist with over 6 years of experience in the hydropower industry. She specializes in providing project management support and assisting clients with regulatory processes including FERC hydropower licensing, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and document preparation, consultation with agencies and stakeholders, public involvement, dam safety support, and managing compliance programs. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, skiing, and traveling.