The Upper Valley has played host to scores of pilots, scientists, and support crew since spring of this year. The crews are here to conduct some of the fifty-eight studies that are part of the preliminary licensing process for the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project. A late breakup in 2013 as well as access issues regarding lands owned by Alaska Native Corporations mean that some of the plans were altered, and the research schedule has been shuffled.
The proposed dam remains controversial in the Upper Susitna Valley, where many residents are concerned about what the potential impacts on the environment and their livelihoods will be.
Some area residents have expressed the opinion that the unusual ice conditions and land access issues this year indicate that the Alaska Energy Authority should take more time to complete the studies as opposed to trying to finish the remaining work in 2014. Wayne Dyok, project manager for the dam, says that AEA believes the research is still on schedule.
“When you’re doing a project of this magnitude out in the field, you take conditions as they come. I think we actually adjusted quite well for the late breakup. The real critical part of the late breakup–it’s really a timing of when the fish are present. That’s what you have to be out for. I think we were able to be mobilized and collect information related to that….We worked around not having access on village corporation lands, collected data this year, and we’ll work on filling in the data next year.”
Wayne Dyok says that AEA believes that they did have a successful research season, based on the priorities that they have set.
“First of all, we had a very safe year of data collection, no significant incidents, and that’s our first and highest priority. Secondly, we want to be respectful of people’s lands….Third is collecting good data, and we believe we had a successful year there, as well.”
There are still variables in play for the 2014 research season. Nobody knows what breakup will be like next year, and the land access issue is still being discussed. Wayne Dyok says that data on the behavior of the river is being supplemented by studies from the 1980s in order to fill in more information on river modeling, given that 2013’s breakup was unusual. He also says that there is a dialogue between AEA and the Alaska Native Corporations that own land near the proposed dam site, but nothing has been finalized at this point.
An additional concern that some area residents have raised is the amount of money being spent on research. Last year, the state legislature approved funding for the project. With the variances that were made to this year’s research, some are wondering if the project is over budget. Wayne Dyok says that the money appropriated in the last state budget was not meant to cover the entire two year study period.
“The budget was our request for Fiscal Year ’14. We have a request in for Fiscal Year ’15. That information will be announced when the Governor announces his budget in December.”
The previous budget was around $95 million dollars, and Wayne Dyok was not able to provide a specific number for what the price tag will be for the next fiscal year. The next round of Technical Working Group meetings for the Susitna-Watana project will begin on Wednesday, November 6th. During those meetings, researchers will share the methods used, and any variances in their study plans. The data will be made available when AEA produces its preliminary research report in February of 2014.