Susitna Dam opponents look for next steps

In last week’s advisory ballot, voters told the Talkeetna Community Council they oppose the construction of the Susitna-Watana dam by a vote of 109 to 19. Now the question remains, ‘so what happens next?’

Opponents of constructing the dam on the Susitna have scored a small victory, but they still face challenges in a decision process that is being fast-tracked by state and federal agencies.

Proponents of the construction still hold the most powerful cards. This summer Gov. Sean Parnell signed legislation necessary to move the Susitna Dam hydroelectric project forward.  Senate Bill 42, sponsored by the governor and passed unanimously by the legislature, allows the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) to advance the engineering and design of the Susitna Dam, taking the project farther than it has even gone before.

According to the Governor’s Office, the Susitna Dam project would provide a much-needed supply of renewable energy while creating jobs for Alaskans.  Parnell claims the project is key to achieving the state’s target of 50 percent of electricity generation through renewable energy by 2025.

With the unanimous vote, lawmakers released $65.7 million in capital funds to be spent to advance the project.  According to a letter from the AEA to the Talkeetna Community Council, environmental and engineering studies are now being geared toward permitting and regulatory approval including an Environmental Impact Study.

The project has re-surfaced at a particularly favorable time for construction and resource development.  With the nation and state looking for alternatives to fossil fuels and greenhouse emissions, the idea of hydropower is more appealing than ever. The very mention of jobs creations is enough to get attention any where in the US.

Last week’s advisory vote indicates that people who live near the dam site have a different perspective.  In the Trapper Creek and Talkeetna area, some residents have a different perspective.  They see the project as a direct threat to the lifeline that flows through their valley.  For them, so much in the northern Susitna communities relies on the river.  Recreation, tourism, transportation, fishing, and hunting are all intertwined and dependent on the river.  Residents also worry about living in earthquake country downstream from the dam.

So what happens if the dam is built? The 800-foot high dam, if on schedule, would be completed by 2032, creating a reservoir 39 miles long and two miles wide. The state will be spending, by conservative accounts, at least 4.5 billion dollars to build the biggest dam that has been build in the US since 1966, when the Glen Canyon Dam was built on the Colorado River

Yet the Susitna dam will generate much less energy than other projects of its size, opponents say.  Glen Canyon, for instance, has a maximum capacity of 1300 megawatts while an engineering study suggests the proposed Susitna dam would have a maximum capacity of 600 megawatts.  Furthermore, according to the Alaska Journal of Commerce, hydro projects typically produce, on average, about half of their technical capacity, which would work out to only 300 megawatts for Susitna.

A local group spearheading opposition to the dam, the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives, believe that, with education, others will see that the dam is too big, too expensive, and unnecessary given other more viable alternatives. They are concerned about potentially devastating impacts on salmon and other wildlife.

Skeptical of the state’s cost estimate, one coalition spokesperson, Rick Leo, notes the states figures do not include access roads, additional transmission lines, and potentially expensive mitigation measures.  Estimates have also ignored what Leo sees as inevitable cost overruns.  Leo believes the 4.5 billion dollar price tag could easily grow to 8 billion dollars or more.

The coalition is convinced that Alaskans will get a better return for their money and realize the goal of 50% renewable energy by looking toward other energy sources.

Story contributed by Sondra Porter

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