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A bad idea from another era: Alaska's dam to nowhere

Don Rearden
A lone kayak on Chauekuktuli Lake, one of Southwest Alaska's Tikchik Lakes, adjacent to Chikuminak Lake, which is the proposed site of a large hydroelectric project. Courtesy John McDonald

It is hard to think that in terms of politics or our approach to the environment that we’d ever revert to the madness of Alaska in the late 1950’s. Alaska was a hotbed for ridiculous government projects then, with the pinnacle of such endeavors being Project Chariot, a plan to ignite an atomic blast, equating to nearly 160 of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima, underground near the village of Point Hope. Naturally, this was all to be done in the name of the Three P’s: peace, prosperity, and progress.

Supporters of that ingenious idea said the explosion would create a useful deep-water port and be a boon to economic development in the area. Fortunately locals and a few vocal scientists managed to have the plan scuttled, but that didn’t stop several other atomic detonations from occurring in Alaska.

But now, in 2013, we seem to be revisiting the 1950’s. Our current legislature is mulling all sorts of 1950’s throwback bills. From bounties on sea otters, public funding for religious schools, and building dams on salmon streams. Yes, dams. At a time when the rest of the US is tearing down many dams to restore habitat, Alaska is bravely forging new paths towards an uncertain future.

Imagine one of the most pristine Alaska State parks, one of the most remote parks in the country. No roads. No powerlines. Little sign of man at all, with the exception of a few old cabins here or there. This is wilderness defined. Deep mountain lakes loaded with fish, huge bears roaming the tundra, berry-covered hillsides, and caribou passing through --- and if you listen to the few proponents of HB 32, the world’s best place for a dam. Yes, a dam.

Why a dam here? Well those supporting the bill will claim this dam will bring much-needed electricity to the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, some hundred odd miles of wilderness and parkland away. In a place with endless wind, and villages already starting to tap that wind power, supporters of the dam suggest the power will offset the high cost of fuel used to generate electricity. In order to get the power from this dam on the Allen River huge transmission lines would have to be strung across remote and pristine wilderness, an area with no road system, not to mention endless permafrost and wetland (and two federal refuges!).

The $10,000,000 study for this dam, as proposed in SB32, borders on ridiculous. For one, there is little chance the Feds will allow such an intrusion through two refuges, and two, the people in the area don’t support the measure. If that money is intended to help the people of the area, it could be put directly into wind energy projects and not into a boondoggle study.

What’s more, citizens of the state of Alaska will be outraged when they realize and see the project’s cost and true intent, to power the Donlin Creek million-ounce-a-year gold mine (proposed transmission lines from the dam to Donlin have been posted online by Nuvista, one of the companies behind the dam).

Notice this 10-million-dollar price tag is only the cost of the study. The company behind this dam projects the total cost to build the dam and transmission lines at over five hundred million. Let me write out those digits for you, from one of their own preliminary reports: $507,000,000.

We don’t need to waste 10 million dollars on a study about whether we should later pay 500 million dollars to dam a river in one of the crowning jewels of our state park system, on a river that feeds important fishing habitat, in an area where the majority of the citizens don’t support the project. Please, contact your state representatives about SB32, tell them we’ve moved beyond the 1950’s. We don’t need to be stopping the flow of our rivers, we need to be stopping the flow of our state money to projects that will only set us back to a century where we thought more bombs and more dams would lead us to prosperity and peace.

Don Rearden, author of the novel The Raven's Gift, grew up in Southwest Alaska and now lives and writes in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.