My Turn: The case for sustainable hydropower in Alaska

The future of the state’s mega projects have been front and center of the news as the Walker Administration addresses budget issues. Given its price tag keeps rising to roughly $7 billion, it is no surprise that the Susitna-Watana Dam leads that discussion.

While important for discussion, I was a bit surprised to see the Juneau Empire editorial board weigh in last week with “The Case for Susitna Dam.” In this editorial, the board raises some very important questions about the future of hydropower in Alaska. However, many of the points raised fail to build a case for the embattled Susitna dam and actually undermine arguments for it.

It is true that Alaskans do need clean, economical and reliable energy for our state. We have a responsibility to look for reduced carbon alternatives and our options are limited by economic, demographic and circumstantial challenges. Unfortunately, the Susitna dam does not meet any of the Empire Editorial Board’s own criteria.

Like me, many residents of Southeast benefit from the smaller hydropower projects near our communities that have been proven compatible with salmon and fisheries. I agree that there are great examples of Alaska hydropower done right. For example, Bradley Lake near Homer, or the hydropower that keeps Kodiak running so efficiently, such as Terror Lake. However, comparing these projects to Susitna is comparing apples to oranges.

Design for the proposed Susitna dam looks nothing like Terror Lakes or Bradley Lake. Despite the wealth of experience gained since the 1950s when the Susitna dam was first proposed, there are still ideologues willing to gamble away the rich fisheries of the greater Susitna Watershed and ask for blind faith that the fate of every other mega dam built on salmon systems in the Lower 48 will not play out on the Susitna. The Empire claims that Susitna is a good idea because this is a “good dam.” “Bad dams, like those built (and now being removed) in Washington State and Oregon block salmon migration and disrupt wildlife. Good dams provide energy without harm,” according to the Empire’s Jan. 2 editorial.

We Alaskans cannot ignore the obvious fact that the Susitna dam has much more in common with the mega dams in Washington and Oregon that have decimated salmon runs than it does with the successful dams cited in Southeast Alaska and Kodiak. The Susitna dam, which would be the tallest dam built in North America in the last 40 years, is the same type as those in the Pacific Northwest that have caused the collapse of entire species, jeopardized commercial and subsistence fishing, and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

In fact, there is not a single example in the world of a mega dam that has had a positive impact on salmon. Everything about the proposed Susitna dam flies in the face of the lessons Alaska has learned since the Susitna dam was first proposed as an “environmentally friendly alternative” to the Rampart Dam on the Yukon.

The Empire, taking a cue from Alaska Energy Authority, focuses on the impacts upstream of the dam. In so doing, they not only mischaracterize the impacts of building a 40,000-acre reservoir behind one of the tallest dams in the U.S., they also willfully ignore the dramatic impacts downstream of the dam. Just a few weeks ago, noted salmon expert Jack Stanford laid these points out very clearly in an Alaska Dispatch News opinion piece. As Stanford explains, this dam is a great threat to the river that boasts the state’s fourth-largest king salmon run in Alaska. Stanford is not alone. While it is true that AEA has been investing state funds in many studies, those studies have faced substantial criticism by federal science agencies for failure to properly asses possible impacts to both fish and wildlife in the Susitna drainage.

Moreover, the Empire turns to the argument for “cheap power.” Yet, the cost of this project does not pencil out to cheap power. AEA recently admitted this project could cost upwards of $7 billion. Other studies show the project could cost more than $10 billion. The overall cost of the project depends upon many factors, including interest rates for necessary loans. Yet, with the state’s credit rating in jeopardy, we can’t assume low interest rates. In the end, the costs of building the dam would lock up Alaska’s reserves or drive up our debt. The economics clearly argue against Susitna.

If we can all agree that hydropower has a critical place in Alaska’s energy future, then the best thing we can do is to stop the wasteful spending on Susitna and more wisely work to truly realize alternatives mentioned by the Empire. With $5-7 billion we could develop salmon-safe hydro projects throughout the state and still invest in overcoming obstacles for other alternatives such as geothermal, wind and the huge potential for hydrokinetic power in Alaska.

In the end, the Empire raises wise critical questions for us to consider. Those questions also get to the heart of why we should cut our losses on the Susitna dam and invest in a comprehensive energy plan for Alaska’s future that does not compromise fisheries resources for power or, in other words, one resource for another.

• Brian Delay lives in Juneau and is a Southeast Alaska gillnetter.

MelissaMy Turn: The case for sustainable hydropower in Alaska