WASILLA -- A private company is in the early stages of a proposal to put a dam on the salmon-rich Talkeetna River, which is now home to a classic stretch of Alaska white water.
The proposal comes as the Alaska Energy Authority continues work on a much larger dam proposed for the nearby Susitna River that has cost the state $190 million to date.
Idaho-based Northwest Power Services Inc. on Sept. 19 filed a preliminary permit application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a 370-foot dam, part of a 75-megawatt-capacity hydroelectric project the company hopes to investigate on the Talkeetna.
The application was filed on behalf of a new Wasilla company called Glacial Energy LLC.
The total cost of the requested three-year study is estimated at $3 million to $5 million, according to the application. Private investors and Glacial Energy members are expected to foot the bill.
Northwest Power Services president and Glacial Energy manager Brent Smith said this week that the Talkeetna project is only in its early stages with the permit application "to investigate the possibility and whether or not the site's a good site."
Before it moves ahead, the Talkeetna hydro project needs to pass muster with studies analyzing construction costs, effects on salmon and potential energy production, Smith said.
"What I'm trying to do is keep any of these discussions as neutral as possible in the event that Talkeetna's not the right place to build it," he said.
Nonetheless, put the words "dam" and "Talkeetna River" together in one sentence and it's bound to draw a reaction.
Word of the proposed hydro project came as an unhappy surprise to Chuck Spaulding, owner of Nova River Runners, a Chickaloon-based company that's taken clients on a three-day Talkeetna River float -- "a really spectacular trip," in his words -- through the proposed dam area for years.
"You're kidding me! Oh my god. Wow," Spaulding said by phone Tuesday. "I'm just overwhelmed at these things that just keep coming in our face all the time. … It's just crazy."
Northwest Power Services, founded in 1993, retrofits existing dams in the Lower 48 and constructs hydroelectric facilities with power plants. The Talkeetna site appealed to the company, Smith said, because of its proximity to the Alaska Intertie transmission line that runs from Willow to Healy (it's about 11 miles away), forecasted population growth in Southcentral and rising energy demands.
The federal permit application describes the particulars: a 2,600-foot-long dam, a half-mile-long penstock and powerhouse, all at a site about 20 miles upriver from Talkeetna at a prominent bend in the river above Sheep River and just downstream of Disappointment Creek.
The dam would create a seven-square-mile reservoir extending up to Iron Creek, according to the application. That's as far as heavy jet boat traffic goes on the river now, and just below the start of a high granite-walled canyon that marks a notoriously long stretch of challenging white water. The reservoir would inundate some less challenging -- and popular -- white water just downstream of the canyon.
Some 8,000 chinook salmon typically spawn in Prairie Creek, which runs into the Talkeetna River above the proposed dam site, according to Jerry Sousa, a veteran Iditarod musher who also runs Talkeetna Fishing Guides.
"It would be pretty devastating, I suspect," Sousa said.
One good thing about the proposed dam would be the potential for flood control near the community of Talkeetna, he said, but added, "It's not worth it, in my opinion, to save flooding issues over ruining an entire ecosystem in the river."
The Talkeetna-based Susitna River Coalition -- established to fight the state's Susitna hydro project -- released a statement this week saying the smaller Talkeetna proposal "concerns us greatly" and that the project could adversely affect thousands of Alaskans who hunt, fish and recreate in the area.
"(T)his is still a very large project that would have significant impacts on the Talkeetna River," the group said in a statement emailed Tuesday that also expressed disappointment that Glacial Energy's Smith hadn't yet approached the coalition or area community councils.
Smith said he plans to start meeting with interested groups in Talkeetna this week.
There will be "fish issues" on the Talkeetna, as there are with any hydro project, he said. "The question is, can we resolve them? If we feel they're resolvable, we'll continue down that road. It's a lengthy process."
Last week, FERC found the preliminary permit deficient and requested more information on the spillway and tailrace, which the company provided Monday.
Smith said he expected it could take a year before his company knows whether it wants to proceed with a dam on the Talkeetna River.