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This isn't what 'green' means: Susitna dam has drawbacks

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Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2012 12:01 am

Community perspective

The prospect of renewable energy holds such promise: a future free of carbons, oil and pollution. Whether you believe in global warming or not, clean air, clean water and healthy fish and wildlife populations are good for us all.

Along comes the proposed Susitna-Watana dam. This is a mega-project — the fifth-tallest dam out of the 850,000 dams on earth — that will dramatically change the Susitna River corridor and its many tributaries. Large dams are bad for wildlife, fish and habitat. One has only to research the effects of dams to confirm this unfortunate truth.

Dams are being removed in the Lower 48 to restore salmon runs. Others are proposed for removal because so much sediment is building up behind them. Why can’t we learn a lesson from this?

Yes, the proposed dam would help the state of Alaska reach its goal of 50 percent renewable electricity (24 percent has already been met), but at a cost far too high. Dams are old technology, and it is time to move ahead, creating smaller, local, eco-friendly energy sources.

Chitina Electric’s proposed run-of-the-river project is an example of the type of alternative energy the state should be striving for. There is minimal harm to the environment, Alaskan jobs are created locally, and they work.

The Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives exists to help establish sustaining sources of electricity that cumulatively will produce more energy than the Susitna dam at far less cost with none of the catastrophic risks. The coalition is a statewide nonprofit corporation centered in the Susitna Valley that is fighting to preserve the Susitna River and traditional Alaskan lifestyles. Damming the Susitna River is devastating to these folks. The organization’s position on the proposed Susitna-Watana Dam includes the following points.

The cost, $5 billion to $6 billion, would make it the largest state-funded project in Alaska history, greater than the entire annual Alaska state capital budget.

In addition to natural gas, we have the planet’s second-greatest tides that alone would produce 125,000 megawatts of electricity within 20 or 30 years as tidal technology improves.

Just a basic energy efficiency program in the dam’s region would save half as much electricity as the dam would generate.

Advances in solar and wind energy make these sources feasible for much of the year in Alaska.

To learn more about the coalition’s grassroots effort, go to http://susitnadamalternatives.org.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is asking for public input about whether to license the dam. Here are some of the concerns citizens expressed to FERC at various meetings:

Seismic activity: In 2002, there was a 7.9 earthquake in the area, a known fault zone.

Glacial river silt: How will silt build-up be addressed?

Fish: How might fish be affected by changes in water flow, water temperature, etc.?

Mammals and birds: Concerned Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists have asked to do in-depth studies of three species — moose, caribou and ptarmigan.

Recreation and land use: What will be the dam’s effect on boating, fishing, hunting, berry picking and recreational cabins?

Aesthetics: Wild lands are among the primary reasons thousands of people visit Alaska each year.

Alaska Natives: How might the dam impact customary uses?

Total cost: More exact figures on the cost of the dam are needed. Too many projects end up dead in the water at the taxpayers’ expense.

Finally, the people of Alaska need to be assured that this isn’t being railroaded through because someone at the top wants a dam and the decision has been made. Too many people in the state are just finding out about this project, and they have only a few weeks to get in their comments and concerns.

The deadline for written comments is May 31. You may file electronically at www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. Identify the project as “Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project No. 14241-000.” Send a copy to your legislators, too.

We do need to get off fossil fuels but not by automatically endorsing every alternative energy project, especially at the cost of a Susitna River that flows unimpeded through beautiful wild landscapes. Caribou, moose, birds and fish have their ancestral homelands here, and we should honor their rich heritage. Innovative, smaller, local, less-damaging renewable energy can be developed that benefits all Alaskans and minimizes our effect on the natural landscapes and wildlife that are so important to us.

Linda Rutledge lives on a homestead in the Copper River Basin. Her lifestyle includes fishing, hunting and berry picking.

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