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Alaska should stop pursuing ludicrous Susitna Dam project

Richard Leo
The proposed dam project received $95.2 million in Alaska's capital budget, which totaled $2.2 billion, down nearly $1 billion from the previous year. Courtesy Alaska Energy Authority

The second tallest of 80,000 dams in America -- to be built across the Susitna River that drains the Alaska Range -- has been proceeding swiftly toward construction for two years. And few people know much about it.

It would be the most expensive state-funded project in Alaska history, estimated at $5.2 billion. Its capacity is for 600 megawatts of electricity; the Grand Coulee dam's capacity is 7,000 megawatts.

Its winter water discharge would be 10 times greater than normal winter flows, impacting first-year salmon juveniles that overwinter in the mainstem and creating open water at least 40 miles downstream of the dam with unstable ice conditions for travel below that.

Summer flows would be reduced by half, altering channels and boating.

An 8,000-foot runway for 737 cargo jets, plus access roads, powerlines, open-pit gravel mines, and a 40-mile long reservoir would criss-cross one of the state's prime hunting areas, Unit 13.

Natural gas already supplies the vast majority of the cheap electricity to the same area the dam would serve -- Fairbanks through Anchorage to Homer -- and a natural gas pipeline bill to maintain those supplies passed the legislature this session.

The dam site is in an active earthquake zone that in 2002 saw a 7.9 quake reduce the sides of mountains to rubble.

The number of jobs that would be created at the height of the construction boom would be about 900, with less than a dozen remaining afterward.

These facts -- not exaggerated -- tend to elicit at least surprise and often shocked alarm from most people who first hear them.

So then why would the state of Alaska even think of building such a massive, destructive, expensive, needless dam within sight of Denali? The governor's answer, offered in July of 2011 when he introduced the project, is, "It's time to go big or go home." The Alaska Energy Authority's answer, from their $500,000 per year public relations budget blurbs, is, "Diversifying Alaska's energy portfolio." The Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives -- a 10,000 member and quickly growing organization of hunters, fishermen, conservationists, small businesses, and general regular folk opposed to the dam -- can only guess at an answer for why the dam is still being pursued so aggressively. Bad politics in Juneau?

I'm one of the founding organizers of the Coalition, so I'm familiar with the growing data that reveals the problems with the dam. The more information that comes out about the dam's costs, impacts, risks, and alternatives, the more preposterous the project seems. For instance, Alaska's first two wind farms -- on Fire Island and in Healy -- have a capacity for 75 megawatts. Two more would equal what the dam would actually produce on an annual average. (The Alaska Energy Authority confirms that 300 megawatts is all the dam would generate across the year.) "Renewable" energy is valuable, but 24 states do not consider large hydro "renewable" because other renewables like salmon and game and migratory bird wetlands and tourism and the businesses that rely on some or all of them would be quashed.

So then why is the state adamantly pursuing the Susitna Dam? The best answer is that most people still just don't know what's happening. One reason the legislature approved $95 million more for the dam this session is because they, too, haven't yet grasped how fundamentally the dam would change Alaska -- removing funds for better alternatives, reducing the reasons we live here, maybe even shifting our license plate motto from "The Last Frontier" to "America's Biggest Dam." (The Alaska Energy Authority is proud that their engineering design for the dam includes an expansion in height after initial construction to make it one of the 10 tallest on the planet.)

Now that you know the basics about the project, this proposed spike in the heart of Alaska, do something. Spread the word. The dam can be stopped.

Richard Leo is board president of the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives, located online at www.susitnadamalternatives.org. He lives in Trapper Creek.

The preceding commentary was first published by The Cordova Times and is republished here with the author's permission. 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.