If you are one of the 30,993 sportfisherman that fished in the Susitna river drainage in 2012, as reported by ADF& G in their annual sport fish survey, then your way of life, like mine has been backed into a corner.
Many folks don't realize the implications of what's happening in the Susitna valley these days. The Alaska Energy Authority is pushing hard to build a 735-foot-tall dam on the largest wild salmon producing river in Cook Inlet. Brace yourself -- the Susitna dam project is rearing it's ugly head again.
I too have a vested interest in the vitality of the Susitna River. My family and I own and operate a small setnet operation near the mouth of the Susitna in Northern Cook Inlet. Our multi-generational fish camp hasn't missed a beat for each of the last 32 seasons. Setnet fishing for us is as regular as breathing. It makes for a busy summer working our nets all-the-while direct marketing our catch to local consumers here in the Matsu.
During the season, setnet fishing sites dot the shoreline from the mouth of the Susitna on down the beach where commercial fishing families like ours contribute to Alaska's robust fishing economy by delivering coveted wild Alaskan salmon to markets here in Alaska and beyond. Each year the salmon return in force... for now.
Despite calm words of reassurance by the state I have a hard time ignoring what has happened to every other salmon-producing river that has been dammed. The evidence is overwhelming -- dams kill salmon. Currently there is no shining example of a dammed river in the world that has sustained its native salmon population. Zero. A smattering of repopulation efforts riddled with problematic infusions of hatchery replacements is all you get.
In the lower 48 there is a long and sad legacy of impacts from dams such as the one proposed for the Susitna, where salmon and fishermen were traded for hydropower. Dan Beard, former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation contends that restoring the Columbia Basin salmon fishery -- where salmon runs are on the brink of extinction - or even restoring it somewhat represents "the most complex natural resources problem in America today. Nothing else approaches it." The challenge of restoring fisheries after dams is costing billions of dollars for Lower 48 states and even with bolstering from hatcheries -is being met with little success.
I wonder how many more setnet seasons we have left. Will my son and daughter be able to continue this family tradition? What about their children, will they even know what a setnet is? If history is any indication, the outlook is bleak.
The Alaska Energy Authority wants this dam to happen so badly they can taste it, and they're not afraid to spend your money to do it. So far it's been to the tune of $95 million, this year alone. The flurry of helicopter and boat traffic up and down the Susitna basin this season has been non-stop.
Scientists doing studies is good, right? During the short window of time allotted for the study thus far, there have been two separate 50-year weather events. The fall-time flood of 2012 followed by the late spring flood of 2013 are hardly representative of typical river conditions.
The scary part is that a decision is to be made whether to build the dam from these very findings in this quick two year snapshot. How can this flash-in-the-pan data be reliable? This fast-tracking of what would be the largest publicly funded project in Alaska is irresponsible.
Are we really so short-sighted as to consider risking a thriving salmon population that has existed for thousands of years for less than 100 years of electricity? It's hard to believe that this is as clever as we can be with the estimated 5.2 billion dollars (projected cost of the dam) of public funds to solve our energy needs. If we are so readily willing to trade one resource for another, I wonder where will it end?
Steve Harrison is a Cook Inlet setnetter, educator and outdoor enthusiast. He lives in Talkeetna and blogs at hbombsalaska.blogspot.net