Jules Domine brings us information about threatened waterways around the world.
Construction of the second tallest dam in America has been proposed in the heart of a treasured Alaskan wilderness, threatening the Susitna River, an Alaskan icon and one of our sport’s most legendary rivers.
The US Bureau of Reclamation first examined the hydroelectric potential of the Susitna River in 1948. Plans for development were considered and abandoned a number of times. However, in 2008 when oil prices were high and money was flowing into state coffers, Alaska began to reconsider the construction of the mega-dam on the Susitna. A 224-meter dam would be built about 190 km north of Anchorage, forming a 110 sq. km reservoir. Mandated economic and environmental impact studies of the Susitna watershed’s myriad components will inform Alaska’s decision to construct or abandon the Susitna-Watana dam. In the meantime, due to the projected irreversible changes on the landscape, the loss of unique ecosystems, the presence of other energy alternatives, and questions around the economical sustainability of the dam, this controversial project has generated vigorous debate about how Alaska will approach energy production in the coming decades.
The Susitna is one of Alaska’s main arteries, and the complex relationship between the river, the salmon, the forest, the wildlife and the land has flourished for thousands of years in the Susitna Basin.
If the Susitna-Watana Dam is built, the ecological continuity of the whole Susitna ecosystem would be interrupted by a 40-mile long reservoir. To complete the construction of this 550-ft wall, access roads, gravel mines, transmission lines and a 8000-ft runway for cargo jets would bring even further disturbance to one of the richest environments in the state.
Dams can negatively affect flow variation and sediment transport, both vital for the well being of the ecosystems, upstream or downstream of the reservoir. While seasonal flow variations are natural in a free-flowing river, irregular releases inconsistent with seasonal cycles have a devastating impact on aquatic life and the natural growth and reproduction cycles for many species. In summer when there is low demand for electricity, when water would be held back to fill the reservoir, downstream flows would be less than half of what occurs on the free-flowing Susitna. This would prevent high water from overflowing the riverbanks, which brings new gravel and nutrients to the river system. Without those nutrients, zooplankton and aquatic insects will not survive, in turn depriving young salmon of this essential food source. In addition, mineral-rich glacial silt would be blocked behind the dam, further altering water fertility. To generate electricity in winter when it’s most needed, the dam would create water flows up to ten times higher than normal levels, disturbing ice formation downstream lowering the survival rate of youth salmon.
Big projects often act as simple and only short-term answers to greater issues environments and governments face. The $6 billion price tag of this project in an area where no roads or infrastructure exist could be invested in a dozen $500 million projects that use hydrokinetic, geothermal, tidal, wind and other more sustainable energy-producing methods. If the state presumes to have money for this huge mega-project it could also choose to spend the same or a lesser amount on arguably more environmentally and economically viable solutions. Also, when looking for energy “solutions” we too often simply search for ways to increase energy production and overlook the significant and cost-effective role that increasing energy efficiency could play in the reduction of energy demand.
What you can do:
It’s hard to know what we can really do against such projects, but small actions can really count. In the case of the Susitna, visit http://susitnarivercoalition.org/, and support them in what ever way you can (Facebook, donations, letters to the state). If you are visiting the area you can show your support for the river. As the economy of the area depends on tourism (hunting, fishing, sports; sightseeing), opinions from various users of the affected zone can have an impact on the final decision.
It can be hard to fight a project located far away from where you live, but there is probably a river near you that could also benefit from your help!
Economic & Political Considerations
The main argument of support for the Susitna Dam is that it will lower the price of electricity in Alaska for the next 100 years, the estimated lifetime of the facilities. However, it would be the most expensive state-funded project in Alaskan history, estimated at $5.2 billion for a capacity of 600 megawatts only. The projected price tag for the Susitna Dam project also fails to include $880 million in transmission facilities and the yet-to-be-negotiated costs of leasing or purchasing the Native Corporation lands on which much of the project will sit.
Can Alaska afford such expense? “Our budget deficit grows deeper as oil prices go lower,” declared Governor Walker recently, “We should not commit new money into projects that may not be continued during this fiscally challenging time.” In relation to other large dams in the US, the ratio of construction cost to energy productivity of the Susitna Dam is very poor: most dams capable of producing 600 MW don’t exceed a cost of $3 billion.
Dams have an estimated lifetime of 100 years, during which their efficiency decreases overtime, and even more so with glacial water (silt accumulation) and in cold weather (degrading facilities faster). Once their lifetime is over, the facilities cannot be recycled and the potential of the land is gone.
A major political argument behind the dam is to meet the state’s goal of having half of Alaska’s electricity generated by renewable resources by 2025. But rather than providing clean energy, the proposed dam could actually contribute to greenhouse gas emissions by melting extensive permafrost, triggering methane release and removing the uptake of carbon dioxide in forests drowned by the reservoir.