Geologists won't be drilling or chipping rocks in the Wood Tikchik State Park this summer, as a controversial proposal allowing geotechnical surveys for the proposed Chikuminuk Lake hydroelectric dam died in the Alaska Legislature's closing days.
Supporters say the hydroelectric dam, proposed in the northwest portion of the park 118 miles southeast of Bethel, could end the region's dependence on costly diesel fuel. Efforts to move the project forward will be revisited next year, they say. Meanwhile, "non intrusive" bird, fish, water studies and an aerial moose survey will continue this summer, said Chuck Casper, engineer for the project's sponsor, the Nuvista Light and Electric Cooperative.
Opponents to the project, however, say it would be a travesty and a violation of a pristine environment. The park is used for subsistence and sport fishing activities by local residents. It is the home of numerous luxury sport fishing lodges, whose guests fly into the Dillingham airport.
Dillingham resident Paul Liedberg described the park as a "tremendous resource" in its natural state, and doubts economic benefits justify the environmental cost.
"We'll be dealing with this in the next legislature, I'm sure, so it will be interesting," said Liedberg, saying figures provided by supporters don't "pencil out economically." Dillingham, as the park's access point, gives the town an "ownership" interest, he said.
"There needs to be a much larger discussion," said Liedberg, adding that lowering rural energy costs is extremely important, under the right circumstances.
Supporters say the 100-foot-tall, 1,000-foot-wide dam could provide hydroelectricity for Dillingham and Bethel and surrounding villages, from the remote lake midway between the two communities. As originally proposed, the dam would only have transmitted power to the Bethel area, Liedberg said.
Because it's in the state park, the Legislature needed to change the park's management plan to allow a special use permit for the geotechnical survey. Senate Bill 32 was sponsored by Sen. Lesil McGuire, R- Anchorage. Companion legislation, House Bill 132, was sponsored by State Rep. Charisse Millett,-Anchorage.
The proposal "stalled in the legislature," but will return next year, Casper said.
While Chikuminuk Lake is in a wilderness area, so are two other lakes where the park management plan already allows future hydroelectric development, according to Jesse Logan, an aide to McGuire. Those two are Elva Lake, which flows via Elva Creek into Lake Nerka, and Grant Lake, which drains through the Grant River into Kulik Lake.
The failed legislative proposal added Chikuminuk Lake as a potential hydro site, and authorized a special use permit for a feasibility study from the state DNR, including a geotechnical study, Logan said.
Logan said salmon do not swim up the steep waters of the Allen River for spawning in Chikuminuk, which he said is a seldom-visited lake, with no cabins, and only 16 visitors reported in park records in 2011.
Opponents, however, fear downstream impacts from a changed waterflow could endanger the subsistence and multi-million dollar commercial salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. This summer's fish research includes a spawning survey to learn how far up the Allen River salmon swim, said Casper, estimating the distance at a half-mile to one mile from where it empties into Chaulektukuli Lake
Casper said the dam would be located where the lake enters the 11-mile-long Allen River, and drops some 600 feet into Chaulektukuli Lake. Established in 1995, Nuvista is only a potential power wholesaler, as it presently doesn't own any generating or transmission facilities, he said. Nuvista's board of directors is composed of Bethel-area groups, including Calista, the regional Native corporation.
The total budget is projected at between $400 million and $500 million, with $300 million for building the dam, and up to $200 million for transmission lines. If the transmission lines only go 110 miles to Bethel, that's a $100 million bill, which doubles if they also head south about 120 miles to Dillingham, Casper said.
The Legislature in 2011 approved $10 million for the feasibility study. The proposed geotechnical survey involves drilling three-inch-wide holes 100 to 150 feet deep, chipping off rock samples, and digging small holes with hand tools. An ongoing raptor survey of eagles and hawks resumes this year, he said.
Actual hydro power is at least 10 years away, Casper said, with studies continuing for three years, followed by a two-year review of a license application by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee. If a license is granted, that's another five years, with two years for design and three years of
construction, he said.
Public comments made to the state Department of Natural Resources showed a regional divide, with Bethel in favor, and Dillingham opposed.
"I understand the desperate need for affordable power in SW Alaska, but the proper processes and respect for the work that established by park must be observed," wrote Dan Dunaway of Dillingham.
Also opposed were Russell Nelson, Terry Hoefferle, Craig Schwanke, and Mark D. Rutherford, of Dillingham, Roger Skogen of Koliganek, the Bristol Bay Native Association, the Wood Tikchik State Park Management Council and several sport fishing guides from Anchorage.
Letters of support came from Y-K area organizations, including the Calista Regional Corp., the Association of Village Council Presidents Regional Housing Authority, and the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation. John Mark of Quihagak was also in favor. Not all delta comments were supportive, with opposition expressed by Bethel lawyer Myron Angstman.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman.