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Proposed damming of Susitna River counters modern notions of progress

  • Author: Chandra Brown
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published September 27, 2014

I left Alaska in early August of this year to begin a graduate program in the northern Rockies. Leaving Alaska is never easy, especially after working the glorious summer months on some of my favorite rivers on the continent. As an Alaska-born-and-raised river guide and educator, I identify this place as my home. That will likely never change. But I've procrastinated this return to my own education for too long. Forward motion and progress: down the river and toward new goals.

From my various recent vantage points around the country and state, I've watched and listened as discourse around the Susitna-Watana Hydro Project unfolded; as my own friends coordinated logistics for research expeditions into the area; as permits were sought and voices were raised. I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the ideas of development and progress, and my heart breaks for the iconic Susitna, who seems to be trapped in the middle of a terrible dichotomy.

In today's world, the notions of industrial innovation and forward progress no longer necessarily imply expansion, development, and enthusiastic construction. With regard to large-scale hydroelectric projects in particular, innovation has come to be deeply associated with the process of deconstruction. Great American rivers are being set free, after years or decades of constructed impediment and forced stagnation. Parameters of what defines our society's progress in the realm of energy production are being reevaluated -- a dynamic reassessment of environmental, cultural, and economic priorities illuminated by an evolving collective political and social consciousness.

The Susitna-Watana Hydro Project is antithetical to this evolution. Construction of mega-dams is an outdated practice, a remnant of an archaic model of overly ambitious industrialist schemes to tame wild rivers in the name of economic progress. Glenn Canyon, Hoover, Grand Coulee and other such dams are leviathan relics of an admittedly impressive technology that no longer reflects the capacity of our society's potential for innovation, our capacity to consider all elements of the whole when making legislative decisions about how we will utilize or alter a system.

Mandated economic and environmental impact studies of the Susitna watershed's myriad components will inform Alaska's decision to construct or abandon the Susitna-Watana dam. Even if the project is abandoned and the dam is never built, the studies themselves will impact the river's physical system by increasing human activity and engagement in a truly wild northern wilderness. Discourse around dam construction will impact the area's cultural system by permanently altering the way in which Alaskans relate to and define this river: The value of the individual components of the river system will be quantified, analyzed, compartmentalized and prioritized.

As citizen groups, industry corporations, and environmental organizations demand studies on the areas of the system that they value most, the system is further disintegrated. Salmon, caribou, bears, terrestrial plant species, aquatic vegetation, traditional subsistence lifestyles, recreational accessibility, geological economic potential, and anthropological and archeological resources, among countless other "values," will jockey for rank in a government-constructed hierarchy of relevance, importance, vulnerability, and expendability. Our new perception of the Susitna River will become a reflection of this bureaucratic arithmetic over the period of research and study that precipitates dam construction (or non-construction). Our new definition of the value of the river will reflect the quantitative values of its system's components.

If the dam is to be built, after these studies have concluded, the Susitna River -- and Alaskans' perceived relationship to it -- will be forever altered. The physical changes (the flooding upstream, the de-watering downstream, the irreparable alterations to the ecosystem, the aesthetic scarring of the landscape) will be irreversible. Less tangible changes (the prioritizing of one species' survival over that of another, the quantifying of abstract social and environmental values, the defense of some lifestyles and the sacrifice of others) will surely change cultural perceptions of the watershed and our place within it.

To be sure, no measure of deconstruction, reclamation, or restoration on the part of a future Alaska government will return the Susitna watershed to its current state.

Across our country -- as large dams are being dismantled, as the structural integrity of aging impoundments is questioned, as an evolving awareness of the holistic and fragile nature of human and environmental systems is evidenced by increased implementation of superior technologies -- Alaska proposes the construction of yet another monolithic behemoth, a 735-foot-tall effigy to a bygone era of overpriced megaprojects that permanently altered the landscapes and cultures they aimed to improve, control, or manipulate. This proposition reflects poorly on the Alaska Energy Authority for its shortsighted, antiquated answer to Alaska's demand for power.

A more elegant solution exists in the deconstruction of old ideas.

I challenge Alaska to identify that solution and to reject dated and suboptimal technologies that impede true industrial progress, responsible innovation, and free-flowing rivers.

Chandra Brown was born in Anchorage and has worked most of her adult life as a whitewater rafting guide and high school Spanish teacher. She is currently a Master's candidate in the University of Montana's Environmental Studies program.

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

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