Opinions

Susitna hydro project has been studied to death. So bury it already.

Hats off to our legislators, the governor and his team for their countless hours of work on the all-but-impossible task of figuring out what to do about The Budget.

While Alaskans from Metlakatla to Nuiqsut call into committee hearings to make a plea for their children's schools, the ferry or radio station that connects them to the world, or their village public safety officer, our elected officials toil over how to cut a million here or a hundred thousand there.

Wouldn't finding a spare $33.5 million make this job just a bit easier? Here's the deal:

You probably know that the state has sunk more than $190 million into figuring out whether building a 735-foot mega dam on the Susitna River makes sense. Or, more precisely, trying to figure this out again, 30 years after determining it did not pencil out. Like us, you may have cheered when Gov. Bill Walker put no money in his budget for the dam and then put the project on hold -- one of six mega projects that make no sense in light of the budget deficit.

But here's something few of us knew until a week or so ago when Alaska Energy Authority officials apprised the Senate Finance Committee: AEA has $33.5 million squirreled away from previous appropriations for the Susitna dam project. It's outrageous that AEA has tens of millions of dollars stashed away while decision makers in Juneau agonize over cuts to essential programs because of tight fiscal realities.

AEA wants to use this huge pot of money to keep the Susitna dam project treading water for the next couple years. They hope state coffers will be more full by then. And they'll expect the state to hand over the $100 million or more AEA still needs to find out if the feds would license this dam -- far from a sure thing, given the major impacts it will have on habitat and fisheries. More than 60 percent of Alaskans oppose the project because it threatens to devastate the Susitna's wild salmon.

We can all think of far better ways to spend these funds than on life support for this ill-fated dam. By re-appropriating AEA's $33.5 million stash, the state could do any of the following (you'll have your own list):

• Keep teachers in classrooms -- fill the $32 million shortfall in the education budget;
• Fund more than three years of oil spill response to protect Alaska’s fisheries;
• Fund the Alaska Chinook Salmon Recovery program for more than four years; or
• Fill the $30 million shortfall in the Alaska Marine Highway budget.

AEA wants this $33 million, and another $100 million or more, to advance the dam through the pre-licensing process. The fact is, the scientists and resource agencies that are reviewing the studies say that many are flawed and others are inadequate. What's more, after the dam resurfaced in 2011, the Railbelt utilities committed to four new power plants and the state committed to a natural gas line. We don't need this dam. Between flawed studies and a lack of need, it is quite likely that a license will never be issued.

Beyond a long, expensive and uncertain licensing process, there is that pesky problem of the ever-increasing price tag to build the dam. AEA's current estimate goes up to $6.8 billion. Independent estimates, including one by Alaska economist Gregg Erickson, put it at $10 billion. Imagine the programs and projects we could fund with that kind of money!

In the end, countless studies won't change the fact that we can't afford this project that is bad for Alaska's economy, energy needs and salmon fisheries. It's time to stop wasting money and put this project to bed. The best thing that our legislators can do is retrieve these funds and appropriate them to programs that are truly essential to the future of Alaska.

Ellen Wolf is a board member of the Susitna River Coalition. The Talkeetna-based coalition intends to protect the Susitna River watershed's vast natural resources and promote safe, economic and sustainable alternatives to large hydropower.

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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