For years, members of the Seldovia Village Tribe have argued with city officials in an attempt to open the dam on Fish Creek to allow the free passage of salmon to upstream spawning beds. And for years, the city has refused on the grounds that the reservoir behind the dam is an essential backup to the city's water supply, particularly in the event of a major fire or the failure of the city's other reservoir.
On Monday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game hosted a meeting in Anchorage to discuss the operation of Fish Creek dam with Seldovia City Manager Ken Weaver and Seldovia Native Association President Fred Elvsaas. The city also had legal representation at the meeting.
Fish and Game habitat biologists and a representative from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources were to have attended Wednesday's city council meeting to reiterate what they stated Monday -- the dam is not in compliance with the state's Fishways Act, which could lead to fines of $1,000 a day.
Fish and Game habitat biologist Stewart Seaberg said he hopes the officials' visit to Seldovia might help to clear up some misconceptions about water rights and laws concerning salmon streams.
The dam first impounded the water of Fish Creek decades ago to keep Seldovia's canneries supplied with fresh water during the winter months, when the city's other water supply from Lagoon Creek tended to freeze up. Back then, the policy was to open the Fish Creek dam during the summer to allow salmon to pass upstream.
Legally, the Department of Natural Resources water-use permit for Fish Creek only allows the city of Seldovia to use the water from November through February.
For the last decade or more, however, the city has not opened the creek to spawning salmon, which are predominantly chums. The dam now forces the majority of the salmon to spawn in the intertidal slough, where the salty water stymies their reproduction. Those fish that do swim the short distance up to the dam are blocked from what Seaberg called ideal spawning grounds.
Many Seldovians acknowledge the intervention of a few locals, who scoop up some fish and put them above the dam. It is uncertain, however, if any of those fish successfully reproduce.
Though the water of Fish Creek does not currently pass state Department of Environmental Conservation standards for drinking water, City Councilman Walter McInnes said the city must protect its right to that water because there is a proven need for the impounded water as a backup to Lagoon Creek's reservoir. McInnes added that the city has spent money on the repairs and maintenance of the Fish Creek dam.
Seaberg said that as far as the Department of Fish and Game is concerned, the gate on the dam must be opened to allow the fish to swim through to the gravel spawning beds upriver.
"We're going to inform them that they are in violation of the law if they don't allow the fish to pass," Seaberg said. "We want that dam open pretty much immediately, and we're hoping we get voluntary compliance. As far as we're concerned, the law is pretty clear, you have to allow fish to pass."
Driving past a group of anglers dangling lines into Seldovia Slough on Friday afternoon, Elvsaas remembered childhood days when salmon used to come through in huge numbers.
He hopes that the opening of the dam will help revitalize the once-strong runs of chums and pinks in Fish Creek.
"When fish are in the stream it adds to the life of the area, not just for the people, but for all the animals as well," Elvsaas said.