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Susitna dam is unnecessary, but who's paying attention?

Richard Leo
State of Alaska illustration

What would be the second tallest dam out of 75,000 dams in America, to be built across our Susitna River, got started more than a year ago when not one state legislator opposed its initial funding.

The only dam ever proposed so far north on a glacial river so vast amid an ecosystem so complex continues to be fast-tracked toward construction because not one legislator is willing to stand up and suggest that the project might be nuts.

"Done deal" our governor believes, the man behind the plan. The Legislature controls the purse strings for the largest state-funded project in Alaska history. If the Legislature is on the governor’s side, then he’s probably right.

But listen: a few problems do exist. Big problems.

The Susitna Dam at times has to discharge from its 40-mile-long reservoir 400 percent more water in winter than is normal. Water flow out of the dam generates electricity. Winter is when electricity is most needed. That increased flow means salmon juveniles and fry which normally over-winter at the calm edge of the current will have to frantically swim for their lives. The “at times” part is critical because the winter discharge will vary every day as lights come on in the morning and get turned off at night. There will never be a constant steady flow. Young salmon will burn calories trying not to get flushed. If any survive, they will ultimately return to the ocean depleted and under-sized: easy prey.

River ice will also be whacked. Jacking the flow so far up and then down won’t allow for normal freezing. Snowmachines, dogsleds, moose and caribou will be in danger because the ice cover won’t be stable. The river won’t be a safe transportation corridor.

Summer boat access won’t have trusted channels because flows will be below normal. The reservoir has to re-fill and electricity demand in summer is low. Summer recreation is a major part of life on the Susitna.

And the dam will do nothing to supply critical heating fuel. Natural gas now supplies 75 percent of both heating fuel and electricity to most of the Railbelt area the dam would serve. Natural gas simply must continue to be produced and extended to Fairbanks. But new natural gas projects are, right now, spinning their wheels while the dam, which would meet only 25 percent of Railbelt energy needs, gets pushed hard and fast.

These are big problems. But only the bigger ones. Though some would argue that a 7.9 quake in 2002 near the proposed dam site with new faults steadily being discovered is a big problem. And the impact on Nelchina caribou of construction roads and powerlines and an 8,000-foot airport for 737 cargo jets is a big problem. Unresolved Native land issues in the general dam area are a big problem, too.

The Alaska Energy Authority charged with building the dam has no answers to these problems. They are “studying” them. But every agency doing those studies -- the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Park Service, among others -- has gone on record saying that they are having a hard time foreseeing good answers with the breakneck pace AEA insists upon.

So what happens if, for any reason (see all the above), the dam doesn’t get built? What’s Plan B for Railbelt electricity? That’s the biggest problem. Alaska has 95 percent of the nation’s potential for tidal energy, up to 125,000 megawatts (the dam would produce 300 megawatts annually). Alaska has huge geothermal reserves. But those resources won’t be online for at least a decade. In the meantime we do have enormous supplies of natural gas.

If our politicians really wanted to address our energy needs, they wouldn’t be wasting time and money on a destructive dam that won’t be ready until the mid-2020s at the earliest. They would dump that problematic project and deliver us the natural gas that already works, that we must continue to have, that can answer all Railbelt energy needs.

It’s sort of a no-brainer that the dam isn’t necessary, but who’s paying attention?

Richard Leo is a member of the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives (stopthedam.org). He lives in Trapper Creek.

The views expressed in the above commentary are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.