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Compass: Susitna dam not the best answer for energy

You'd like to believe that the largest state-funded project in Alaska history, a project that would fundamentally alter the entire Susitna River ecosystem from the foothills of Denali across to the Talkeetna Mountains and down to Cook Inlet would now be, after more than a year of ongoing development, common knowledge. After all, here's a plan, proceeding rapidly, to build one of the tallest dams in the Western hemisphere in the heart of Alaska -- where salmon runs are already declining -- and yet, public understanding of the Susitna dam's progress and problems remains minimal.

The magnitude of the dam's impacts are not entirely grasped by even the Alaska Energy Authority, the state agency trying to build it.

Their plan to dump so much water from its reservoir into the winter river to generate electricity will most likely make snowmachine and dogsled travel on unstable ice impossible. Their need to reduce summer flows when electrical demand is down also reduces boating possibilities. Their intent to carve up the Denali Highway area with construction roads and power lines and an 8,000-foot runway for 737 cargo jets doesn't seem possible to coexist with the Nelchina caribou herd.

They don't quite grasp that they can't 100 percent guarantee that such a huge dam, near an active fault where a 7.9 quake happened in 2002, won't catastrophically fail. They try not to admit that salmon runs on the Su really could be crushed conclusively as every other large dam on a salmon river has done. None of this is fully or widely understood.

And that's the point: for a project of such enormity that would affect fish, wildlife and recreation and alter the very idea of what "Alaska" means to us who live here or visit, the unknowns are alarming.

The only reason to manipulate a complex system without certainty of the effects is desperation. The Railbelt region the dam would serve is not desperate for more electricity. Most of the Railbelt uses natural gas now for both electricity and heat. Fairbanks needs help with both. We have lots and lots of natural gas waiting to solve all our energy needs.

Key members of the media think the project is just another ridiculous state boondoggle with no chance of getting built. Why cover an issue that's doomed? Why else are you reading virtually nothing about it except in op-eds like this? But right now there is not one state legislator on record as opposed to the dam. The governor is pushing it hard. And it's a state project, not private. Yes, the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project (which in fact is not on the Susitna at Watana Creek but rather at Deadman Creek; "Did you honestly think we'd call it the Deadman Dam?" said one AEA official, matter-of-factly) sure seems dangerous and problematic. But it's happening, and happening fast.

We live in Alaska because it's exalting. The aurora on a clear night, the gold twilight at summer solstice, the oh yeah, soar-into-flight rush of being out on a snowmachine or boat or foot, even just the sudden memory that it is exalting to have this as our lives -- that all becomes whacked by a stupefying monolith of concrete spiked through its heart.

If electricity is available in ways that already exist, if the dam is not the best way to get more, if we're going to leave our children's grandchildren a legacy that is less rich and sustaining, less fish- and game-filled, less magnificently wondrous than what we have now -- why isn't everyone paying attention?

Ah, but the real question might be how do we finally decide on the most effective natural gas alternatives? The most efficient renewable energy developments? The better projects for all our energy needs than one massive dam in a state with more abundant resources -- tidal, geothermal, wind and gas -- than probably any other single place on earth?

Come on. That's just politics. That isn't life. Good politics can redeem our gridlocked energy issues, but nothing will redeem the loss of the Susitna.


Richard Leo is a member of the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives. He lives in Trapper Creek.