Nature Conservancy Will Review Susitna Dam Studies

A worldwide environmental conservation group is becoming more involved in the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project. This summer, contractors working under the Alaska Energy Authority have been conducting 58 studies to assess the environmental impact of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric project. The Nature Conservancy, which operates in 35 countries and across the entire United States, has hired a consultant to review the data that the studies produce and generate and independent assessment of some of the environmental risks.

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AEA says that the proposed dam would generate enough power to fill the needs of half of the Railbelt’s current consumers at a cost of $5.19 billion dollars. Some opponents of the dam claim that environmental impacts would outweigh the benefit of what would be one of the tallest dams in America. The Nature Conservancy plans to conduct an independent evaluation of the study data to see how significant the environmental impacts will be on one of Southcentral Alaska’s key industries.

“For the Susitna-Watana Hydro Project, we want to use that framework to look at what are the risks for salmon, in particular salmon habitat, if that project were to be built”
That’s Corinne Smith. She oversees the Nature Conservancy’s efforts in the Mat-Su Basin. To sift through the large amount of fishery data, the Conservancy has brought in Anchor QEA, a nationwide engineering and environmental consulting firm with offices in Anchorage. Smith says that the data currently being gathered could prove useful in determining the potential impact of the Susitna-Watana dam as well as future hydroelectric projects.

“If we were to build a big dam on any large river, like the Susitna, in the state, we would use the Susitna as a case study because there is so much information about that particular river, and there will be in the next two years, after AEA’s studies.”

That wealth of data will include information on the spawning areas and run strength of area salmon as well as potential impacts on their habitat, such as water flow rate, silt accumulation, vegetation, and changes in how the river freezes. The determinations that The Nature Conservancy and Anchor QEA reach are not purely for their own use, however, and Smith hopes that others will find the data helpful.

“Our goal is also to provide information for other stakeholders in the process–to have a clear framework for how to assess the impacts from the study. That’s a lot of information. It’s a little unclear, yet, how it all flows together. We’re taking just one piece of it, and that’s salmon salmon. Obviously there are a lot of other potential impacts from the dam, and we’re just looking at the salmon piece of it.”

Smith says that The Nature Conservancy plans to keep in line with AEA’s study timeframe, and expects to reach some conclusions by the end of 2014.

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