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Rural Alaska

Chikuminuk Dam project shelved

  • Author: Dave Bendinger
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 22, 2014

In February, Nuvista Light and Electric Cooperative's board of directors voted to drop the Chikuminuk Lake hydroelectric study. The project was costly, not legal, and resented by many in Bristol Bay.

This decision comes just months after the Dillingham-based Nushagak Cooperative abandoned the hydro projects at Lakes Grant and Elva.

That means there are currently no plans to build a dam anywhere in the Wood-Tikchik State Park.

Nuvista unveiled plans for the dam to the downstream public at the park's management council meeting in Dillingham in the spring of 2012. Engineers spoke of a 128-foot dam on the Allen River below the lake, with 118 miles of transmission lines to carry an estimated 88.7 gigawatts of power per year to Bethel. The dam would cost half a billion dollars to build, and the price per kilowatt hour would still be near 70 cents.

"I was stunned," said Dan Dunaway, a retired sport fish biologist who was at the meeting. "When you hear about the most remote part of the park being conjured up for a hydro project, and it's not even legal? It struck me as a boondoggle."

Dunaway was not alone. Over the next year and a half, scores provided testimony and written comments in opposition to building the dam or even studying its feasibility.

Wood-Tikchik, the largest state park in the U.S., is 1.6 million acres of unmolested wilderness. Millions of Nushagak River salmon spawn in the park's lakes, via the Wood and Nuyakuk Rivers. The ecosystem, many said, is best left alone.

"Some people think hydro development is totally beneficial," said Dunaway. "I've studied it. I know it's not. It can have massive impacts on an ecosystem. That is a very unique place, and I don't think Nuvista knew what they were talking about or getting into."

Last year, bills introduced in the House and Senate would have added Chikuminuk Lake to a list of two others in the park, Grant and Elva, where hydro projects could legally be developed. A sharp outcry of opposition prompted a quick change, and the amended bills would merely have allowed for a field study at the proposed dam site.

Dunaway was one of many who did not want the door to development opened even that much.

"I've watched the hydro studies at Grant and Elva very closely over the years," he said. "We have all this recent, hard data to show that the costs to develop hydro at either of those two sites would be astronomical. It became clear to me that this was an outrageous waste of money. Ten million dollars for a field study? They could've just sat down and crunched the numbers to see it wasn't going to work."

As late as last December, Nuvista stated its intention to again pursue legislative approval for the study. The Chikuminuk provision was now attached to the governor's permitting reform bill known as HB 77, itself already controversial in Bristol Bay.

But behind the scenes and under new leadership, Nuvista was changing gears.

"We began to better understand all of the challenges," said new executive director Tiffany Zulkosky.

Though she says Nuvista still finds merit in hydropower potential at Chikuminuk, the litany of problems made the effort impractical.

In a February proposal to Nuvista's board, Zulkosky says she recommended dropping the Chikuminuk study and focusing on more practical, near-term energy solutions.

"The board voted unanimously to support that proposal," she said.

A Feb. 28 letter was sent to Sen. Lyman Hoffman's office, notifying him of the change. Hoffman, along with Sen. Gary Stevens and Rep. Bryce Edgmon, then called for the language relating to the Chikuminuk Lake study to be removed from HB 77, writing that the region "has decided to go in a new direction."

Sen. Lesil McGuire, the Chikuminuk study bill's original sponsor, withdrew the language on March 14. Chikuminuk Dam had been shelved.

According to Zulkosky, less than half of an original $10 million legislative appropriation to study the Chikuminuk hydro project has been spent. Nuvista hopes to redirect the remaining funds to other energy projects.

"We'd like to start by developing a sound energy plan for the Y-K region," said Zulkosky. Such a plan could help Nuvista "identify smaller-scale projects that we may have the money to construct right now. We need to do something."

Some estimates suggest energy costs in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region are the highest in the nation.

"I know how desperate they are for solutions," said Dunaway, who lived and worked in the region for years. "But they could've already put up at least a couple windmills for the millions they spent putting consultants in helicopters for the last two years. I think we've funded some Hillside houses in Anchorage and haven't done a darn thing for anyone in Aniak or Akiachak."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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