As Alaska’s natural gas prices continue to rise, the Alaska Energy Authority is working on a large-scale project aimed at steadying Railbelt energy costs and moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels.
But critics say the potential environmental impacts of the proposed Susitna-Watana Dam could cost the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans who rely on the river.
“It’s gooey and it jiggles around and it’s really abrasive, but it provides some great habitat for regermination – look, look at that little sculpin!” Mike Wood said, dipping his hand into the gritty silt at the edge of Whiskers Creek, where it connects to the Susitna River.
The sculpin are some of the smaller fish in an ecosystem with grayling, trout and salmon. Wood lives in Chase, just north of Talkeetna and fishes the river year round. He harvests fallen trees for building projects in the area, too.
“These trees that I bring home are huge for our area, they’re like 26 inches on the butt. I always call them salmon fed-trees because – look at that sculpin there—because all this has got to have fish waste in it,” Wood said, pointing to a rotting salmon carcass soon after.
Wood has lived along the Susitna River for nearly a decade, relying on it for food and transportation year round, but he’s afraid that his lifestyle may change because of the proposed Susitna-Watana Dam.
“It’s in a very, very good location for a large hydro project,” Energy Authority Executive Director Sara Fisher-Goad said.
She says the main purpose of the $5 billion project is to meet Alaska’s goal of supplying half of the state’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.
“This would be approximately 50 percent of the electrical energy needs of the Railbelt serving over 80 percent of the population,” Fisher-Goad said.
She says the idea for the dam was originally developed in the 1980s but was shelved for purely economic reasons – oil and gas were so cheap, building a dam didn’t make sense. But now, she says the hydroelectric project would stabilize energy prices over time.
But the project’s director, Wayne Dyok, acknowledges that yes, a 735-foot high dam just above Devil’s Canyon would change the Susitna River.
“So you will see some differences in the reach from Talkeetna to the Watana Dam site. I think you can’t avoid that,” Dyok said.
But he doesn’t see all of the changes as necessarily negative. For example, naturally, the river can fluctuate multiple feet per day over the summer. Dyok says stabilizing the river’s flow could help the fish.
“And we do know that some projects, including those in the Lower 48, that have actually improved conditions downstream,” he said.
The dam would make the flows more consistent from season to season as well.
Whitney Wolff with the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives doesn’t see how this could help the fish. She says the salmon need the pulse of water in early spring to send them downstream.
“These seasonal events have a huge, positive impact on the ecosystem, and that would be completely lost,” Wolf said.
Commercial fisherman and Talkeetna resident Steve Harrison says the higher winter levels could cause a problem for the juvenile salmon that normally hole up in little nurseries.
“When they’re young and extremely vulnerable, washing them out to sea would kill them,” Harrison said. “And that could destroy the run.”
It’s not just the fish that Harrison worries about. He and his wife Rachel rely on the frozen river in the winter for transportation. Every year they watch the telltale signs of the frazile ice on the edges of the river.
“It would kind of remind you of white rice, elongated white rice that’s clinking together and sloshing on down,” Rachel said. “It’s a slurry, but it’s elongated.”
That’s their indicator that the world is about to open up. When the Susitna freezes, the Harrisons ski and snow machine alongside bikers, dog mushers and moose. Rachel says the river is busier in the winter than any other time of the year.
The dam would make the winter water higher and warmer and could impact ice formation.
Dyok says he understands the importance of the river ice. That’s why AEA has hired scientists to create ice models based on freeze-up data from the river’s wide fluctuations.
AEA is leading 57 other research projects that look at everything from caribou migration and vegetation mapping to subsistence use. The studies are required as part of the federal licensing process. They’ll be used with thousands of pages of data collected in the 1980s. Dyok says the information is necessary for deciding the best way to run the project, if it’s permitted.
“You try to come up with a operating scenario that’s going to achieve the appropriate balance between the environment and the energy needs that we have in the state,” Dyok said.
Back on Whiskers Creek, Mike Wood takes me to one of the study sites and points to boxes of wires attached to trees and narrow metal pipes covering monitoring equipment by the creek.
Shinny silver bubble wrap once encircled a mammoth cottonwood. It held on sensors monitoring sap movement. But now sections dangle off, ripped to pieces.
“…And here, the bears just love coming and putting their claws right into them,” Wood said, his boots crunching dried ferns as he investigates the decimated piece of equipment. “There’s so much science trash out here. It’s amazing. Just look at them, torn apart…”
But Dyok is confident that their data quality is good, especially the information from over 500 tagged Chinook salmon.
He and his team have four more years to prove it. The state will apply for a federal project permit in 2017.