Climate uncertainty prompts questions on dam studies

In Anchorage this week,  a panel of federal scientists is getting a look at progress on environmental studies for the Susitna-Watana Dam. It’s all part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s [FERC] pre-licensing process, although, an earlier hold on the hydro project has caused a two year delay in work on the application, and now some are questioning whether the environmental studies are accurate.

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The Susitna Watana Dam has been touted as part of an ambitious state energy plan aimed at providing 50% alternative power by 2025. Backers of the project say the dam is the answer to Railbelt energy needs for the next one hundred years.

The dam is a project of the Alaska Energy Authority. AEA’s Initial Study Report on its environmental study plan for the dam was delayed when the Walker administration put six major state projects on hold at the end of 2014.  At that time, FERC allowed AEA time out on it’s work on the federal licensing process, but late last year, federal energy authorities agreed to resume work on AEA’s licensing application, although the federal agency asked for a review of AEA’s study data through 2014 to determine whether there is enough information to meet federal regulations. That is the point of the Initial Study Review meetings in Anchorage this week and next week.

Betsy McGregor, AEA’s environmental manager for the Susitna Watana project, says the review is a check- in to see all the environmental work done thus far.

“We report out on how we have implemented the plans, how we did not implement the plans, called variances, and we also have proposed modifications moving forward that we are asking FERC to rule on. The agencies at this point in time have the opportunity to provide their study modifications and FERC will rule on those as well.”

FERC approved AEA’s intial study plan in 2013, before the hold went into effect. The data in the studies dates from 2013 and 2014. McGregor says AEA consulted with federal agencies in developing the study agenda, and provided ample opportunity for review of its work through quarterly reports up until the hold took place.

But Sue Walker, a scientist with NMFS in Juneau, says the data is not timely.

“Because of the delays, we are actually looking at three years of study, and this is our first chance to have any outside expert review of how those studies were conducted and analyzed,” Walker said Wednesday.

AEA’s study plan is supposed to assess baseline conditions, but NMFS’s Walker says it is hard to say that the studies are representative of current conditions.  She says anomalous weather in Alaska the past two years warrants new data.

“And we will also recommend a modification to a study that is being used to address climate change. Because we feel climate change in a water dependent project in Alaska that is dependent on snowfall, glacial melt and rainwater is going to continue changing under the next hundred years, and that the precision exists to look at how those changes in climate will affect this project.”

NMFS has the responsibility of mitigating the effects of dams on marine species and anadramous fish.. such as salmon. And the dam’s affect on salmon is a major concern, according to Mike Wood, a resident of Chase and president of the anti – dam group, Susitna River Coalition. He says during the time of studies, there have been floods and late breakups in Southcentral.

“Two one hundred year floods, actually, and the latest breakup every recorded in the history of the Susitna, during this period of studies.”

Wood says the amount of data AEA is presenting does not justify the amount of money the state has spent on the dam project.

“We are now a $196 million  into this process, and we are finally having a chance to get an understanding of what the science looks like.”

AEA’s McGregor says the initial study review is only the earliest phase of the licensing process. If FERC approves, some studies will be modified, and new studies will be conducted before a second review occurs. After that, on approval, an impact assessment will be conducted as part of the dam license application. The current meetings continue through March 30 .