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Steve Haycox: Susitna dam proposals date back to territorial days

It remains to be seen what the Alaska legislature will do this session with the Watana Dam project on the Susitna River. The 700-foot high structure, if ever built, is projected to supply 50 percent of the power needed along the Railbelt from Anchorage to Fairbanks. But three issues have taken the blush off the project for which the Legislature appropriated about $95 million last year and $66 million the year before. The Alaska budget is not as robust as it has been, and there are more immediate needs calling for priority; the gas profile in Cook Inlet looks better than it did a few years ago when the prospect of a gas shortage in Southcentral Alaska made any energy alternative look attractive; and Native land title in the area that the dam's reservoir would flood has yet to be resolved. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given permission for 58 necessary studies, but it's unclear that the governor's supplemental budget request will provide the funding needed for them.

Both local residents and national environmental organizations oppose the project. It will dam one of the last wild rivers in America, the country's 15th largest river by volume; it finds increasing favor with river runners. The dam will destroy the isolated and pristine character of the land in the vicinity; it will alter the watershed of the important and lucrative Cook Inlet salmon fishery.

The Watana Dam idea did not come out of a vacuum. In 1948, as part of its promotion of Alaska as the last frontier, the Interior Department directed the Bureau of Reclamation to assess Alaska's water resources. The Bureau was in competition with the Army Corps of Engineers for building dams in the American West, and the Corps secured funds from Congress in 1950 for its own Alaska survey. The Corps found 200 potential hydroelectric sites. BuRec's director, Floyd Dominy, was not one to wait around; the Bureau built the low dam at Eklutna that same year.

In 1954 the Corps began studies of the Kuskokwim and Yukon basins, and shortly focused on Rampart Canyon on the upper Yukon where they proposed a massive high dam, one that would create a reservoir in Yukon Flats the size of Lake Erie, and drown six Native villages. Former territorial governor Ernest Gruening, fully understanding the need for large-scale economic development to sustain Alaska's modern population, enthusiastically embraced the Rampart Dam idea; in 1960 he secured $49,000 from Congress for further study. Critics pointed out that the dam would produce 3 or 4 times more power than Alaska could possibly use in the foreseeable future, and that transmitting the excess to the contiguous states would not be cost effective. Native villagers protested the loss of their homes, and national environmental groups decried the destruction of natural habitat. Ultimately, the Corps gave up the project.

Unsurprisingly, the Bureau of Reclamation opposed Rampart. It had its own idea for Alaska's extant and future power needs: a four-dam series on the upper Susitna River, starting 90 miles north of Talkeetna. A modest dam in Devil's Canyon would anchor the series, creating the first reservoir. The three other low dams, each far enough upriver to create its own reservoir, would be labeled Vee, Watana and Denali.

With Gruening pushing Rampart, which would saturate the power need for the main part of Alaska, BuRec directed its attention elsewhere, including Snettisham, near Juneau. But when the Corps gave up on Rampart, it took another look at the Susitna River, and explored a two-dam tandem there, at Devil's Canyon and Watana. With Cook Inlet gas plentiful, they eventually shelved that idea.

But from 1978 to 1986, the state then being flush with money, the Legislature appropriated $145 million for the Alaska Power Authority to study Devil's Canyon. The 1985-86 economic downturn scuttled that, and local and national environmental protest kept it scuttled. Until 2008, when the legislature called it renewable energy (hydroelectric is usually labeled alternative, not renewable energy), and began appropriating money for a Watana study.

Resource development ideas die a hard death in Alaska. Legendary Alaska environmentalist Celia Hunter knew that when she told Congress when ANILCA passed that the battles had just begun.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.


Steve Haycox