As salmon start making their way back into local waterways, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is watching the Eklutna River closely.

Last summer, the nonprofit Conservation Foundation paid to remove an abandoned dam in the hopes of restoring salmon habitat. This is the first year Fish and Game will see how their efforts are working.

Over the years, the dam, abandoned in the 1950s, filled a 7-mile stretch of the river with sediment. 

"We've been monitoring it to see how the sediment's moving through the system. And we'll be doing that for the next three years, taking various water quality parameters," said Ron Benkert, a regional supervisor with the Fish and Game's Division of Habitat. 

The department is partnering with the Native Village of Eklutna, Eklutna Inc., and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to track the flow of sediment and salmon.

For the first time in 80 years, Benkert says the department could see salmon re-occupying the upper portion of the river. 

"There hasn't been any salmon passage upstream of this point since 1939," Benkert said, pointing to remnants of the lower dam.

Historical information from the Eklutna village suggested that all five species of salmon were found in the lower part of the dam, Benkert said. With its removal, Fish and Game hopes to see a couple of those species now that salmon can move up the channel to use the new habitat.

Benkert says removing the lower dam is the first step of a longer process – there’s still an upper dam at the mouth of the river, Eklutna Lake, that Benkert says Fish and Game is working with utility companies on a three-year timeline to study habitat conditions.

"The encouraging part is that they [the salmon] now have the ability to access up to close to the lake,” Benkert said. “Whether or not we can actually get them into the lake at some point is another thing that we will be looking at."

It’s unclear whether all five species will return, but Benkert said several look promising.

"There's a potential of probably chum, coho and potentially, king salmon coming up," he said.

If that happens, Benkert says the new wild stock could potentially open up more sport-fishing opportunities at Eklutna Lake in the coming years.

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