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A hydroelectric dam at Chikuminuk Lake is a bad idea

  • Author: Myron Angstman
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published February 21, 2014

The Alaska Legislature is once again considering changing the rules that govern activity within Wood-Tikchik State Park, with regard to the preliminary studies into the Chikuminuk Dam proposal. Bristol Bay residents, and all Alaskans, should be alarmed by this proposal.

One of the primary reasons this project has ever been even considered for study is the often-stated fact that Chikuminuk Lake does not contain salmon. Thus it is suggested that there is little to fear from this project in terms of the rich and world-famous Bristol Bay fishery. Nothing could be further from the truth. A hydro project such as this poses a great threat to salmon stocks below the dam, and in this case those salmon number in the millions and affect a significant part of the Bristol Bay fishery.

One of the basic rules of hydro projects is that they must capture enough water during wet parts of the year to continue operating during drier periods. In this case, that will mean huge amounts of water must be held back during the summer, so that the reservoir will continue to produce a substantial flow during the long winter when little new water enters the system. That means that water flowing through the Allen River, site of the dam, will be significantly reduced during the summer, when salmon are spawning in great numbers in lakes and rivers below the dam. The Allen River is by far the largest tributary of Lake Chauekuktuli, which in turn feeds Nuyakuk Lake, Tikchik Lake and the Nuyakuk River, which doubles the flow of the Nushagak River just upstream from the village of Koliganek. All three lakes are huge sockeye salmon spawning areas, and those salmon spawn on the shallow shelf areas near shore. Those gravel shelves are a few feet deep, and drop off dramatically in most cases at the edge of each shelf. Even a slight reduction in water levels below normal midsummer levels would have an immediate and devastating effect on spawning in those lakes. The outlet of each lake is quite shallow as well. At times Tikchik Lake is about 3-4 feet deep at its outlet. Less water in the system could well prevent much, if any, water from entering Nuyakuk River, with disastrous consequences to the entire Nushagak drainage.

These are consequences that are directly tied to House Bill 77 currently under consideration in the Legislature. This bill would prevent many folks from challenging permits for activities that affect water flow in their area. It is seen as a means of streamlining the permit process. Citizens ought to be able to stand up for the protection of water rights, but this bill would prevent that in most cases. At the close of last year's legislative session, the Chikuminuk Lake feasibility study was tacked onto HB 77, and it is believed that the same bill will be up for vote this year.

With regard to the hydro projects in general, salmon spawning is just one of a long list of downstream issues to consider when building a dam. If salmon are affected, it is well known in the scientific community that most fish and wildlife are affected because of the relationship between salmon and the other species. The birth and death of salmon drives the ecosystem in Bristol Bay, and to note just one example, bears that normally feast on salmon have to turn to other sources of food when salmon disappear. Moose calves are one potential target. Still another threat to watersheds comes from the changed water chemistry and composition below dam sites, which affects all aquatic life.

With so much attention focused on the Pebble mine, many in Bristol Bay have paid little attention to the Chikuminuk dam proposal. Unfortunately, in terms of immediate impact, the dam provides much more to fear than the mine. Most of the risk from an open pit mine comes way down the road when the long-term storage of waste and tailings is tested. But a dam's effects start immediately, because collection of water starts the day a dam is finished.

It is interesting to note that earlier hydro proposals for the Bethel area focused on rivers draining into the Kuskokwim River. Many local folks opposed such projects because of the potential harm to salmon stocks in that area. Now that the dam proposal is for a watershed on the other side of the mountains, many Bethel folks who earlier suggested their own salmon should be protected are turning a blind eye to the obvious risks to a much larger salmon population.

The salmon issue is just one of a long list of reasons that the Allen River dam should never happen. Among those reasons are the immense cost, the lack of road access to the dam or the distribution lines, the wilderness status of the dam site and much of the area where the lines would run, and the immense amount of power that would be lost because of the long distribution lines. The state of Alaska has already wasted $3 million studying this boondoggle. The additional $7 million already appropriated (through Nuvista Electric Cooperative, a subsidiary of Calista), should instead be used for energy projects that actually have a chance to provide relief for the high cost of energy in the Bush. In addition, the projected state budget shortfalls in the coming years amount to billions of dollars, and even the pro-development Parnell administration is warning of deep and significant cuts to many programs and projects (including the huge and costly Susitna-Watana Dam project).

Recently, similar hydro projects for two locations closer to Dillingham were found to be not feasible after a much cheaper study performed by the Nushagak Cooperative determined the construction costs to be extreme. How could a project much further from any town be feasible? The cost of air freight for all the labor, equipment and material would be staggering.

The project has advanced somewhat under the radar because of the attention focused on the Pebble mine. It's time the folks in Bristol Bay realized the immense threat to their region posed by this dam. I urge all concerned citizens to contact Nuvista directly at 907-565-4211, and also to contact your legislators about House Bill 77.

Myron Angstman lives and practices law in Bethel.

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.

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