Susitna Dam Timeline Delayed by Four Months

Last month, the Alaska Energy Authority learned that it would be receiving less than ten percent of the funding it would need to complete the studies and other pre-licensing steps for the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project.  In a press release on Monday, AEA says that $110 million will be needed, but Governor Parnell’s proposed budget provides for just $10 million.  Now, AEA is pushing back the timeline by four months, beginning with the initial study report that was originally scheduled for next month.  That report will now be considered a draft, with the final report coming in June.  AEA spokeswoman Emily Ford explains what the extended timeline is intended to do.

“That part would include our efforts for this coming field season and the next.  Essentially, it gives stakeholders a little more time to be able to understand the study results, and for us to more effectively communicate, and also to participate in the prioritization effort for upcoming studies, as well.”

Pushing the initial report back by 120 days also means that the final application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will be filed in early 2016, as opposed to the fall of 2015, as originally planned.  Mike Wood, president of the Susitna River Coalition, a group opposing the dam, applauds the move by AEA, and says it’s a good thing that stakeholders will have more time to digest the findings of the report.  He says that the Coalition has believed all along that AEA’s initial timeframe was too short.

Part of the delay also comes down to there not being enough money to do all of the environmental studies that were initially planned for the fiscal year beginning in July.  Emily Ford says that the process will continue moving forward, however.

“What we’ll be doing is looking at that $10 million figure, looking at our upcoming field season, prioritizing those efforts, and, if additional funds are available through the process, looking at 2015 and implementing a full field season.”

When discussing the cuts to Susitna-Watana’s budget, Governor Parnell cited a lack of progress on access to land owned by Alaska Native Corporations as a major reason for cutting funding.  Emily Ford says that obtaining land access is also an ongoing process.

“AEA and the Cook Inlet Region Group–I think it’s safe to say we both committed to advancing these negotiations for land access, and there is progress.  It may not be as quick as some had expected, but there is forward momentum and there is progress.  We’re continuing to build that relationship and strengthen that relationship for the short term and the long term.”

While AEA’s letter to FERC hints that there may be more money available in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, statements by Senators Pete Kelley and Mike Dunleavy indicate that it will be difficult to find additional funds when the state budget is already relying on over a billion dollars in reserve spending.  Emily Ford says that AEA is not assuming any additional funding will become available this year.

“What we’re doing is assuming that the $10 million is the final budget amount.  We’re making that assumption and we’re taking existing funds that we have and looking to prioritize our field efforts, so we’re not working under the assumption of any additional funds.”

If approved by FERC, the extension that AEA is requesting for the Susitna-Watana project means that there is more time for the Governor and legislature to potentially provide funding in the budget for Fiscal Year 2016. Until then, work on the project will be limited to what is left of Fiscal Year 2014’s $95 million budget in addition to the $10 million for Fiscal Year 2015.  Based on AEA’s letter and statements, it’s safe to say that, while the hydroelectric mega-project has suffered a significant setback, AEA believes it is far from dead in the water.

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