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The Susitna Dam: A budget sinkhole and a false promise

Published in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, August 16th 2020

The Susitna-Watana Hydropower project remains archaic, expensive and damaging. Hundreds of millions of state dollars have already been wasted on a project that would irreparably harm local ecosystems, fish and wildlife habitat, economies and contribute to climate change.

The cost of the Susitna-Watana Dam is both astronomical and wasteful in an age of tight budgets. Between 2010 and 2014, the state of Alaska spent $193 million on studies for this project, many of which are still incomplete and are now outdated. According to past Susitna Project Manager Wayne Dyok, $330 million would be needed prior to the construction phase. The estimated price tag to build the Susitna-Watana Dam ranges from $5 billion to $8 billion.

More difficult to calculate is the cost of destroyed habitat and the economies that rely on it. The Susitna River watershed sustains some of the state’s most treasured hunting and fishing grounds. There have indeed been salmon as far as the dam site and beyond, but the harm to fish populations has more to do with the changes to water levels in estuaries downstream that are critical to juvenile salmon (See the film “The Super Salmon”). Alaska’s economies rely on thriving fisheries and intact wildlife habitats. The Susitna watershed sustains the Upper Tikahtnu (Cook Inlet) salmon fishery, with an average yearly value of $30 million. A study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage found that spending related to sport fishing generated between $31 million and $64 million of personal income for people in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough yearly. Subsistence and personal-use fishing are vitally important economic activities at the household and community level, too.

Furthermore, the proposed Susitna Dam would flood a vast section of Game Management Unit 13, prime moose and caribou habitat and one of Southcentral Alaska’s best hunting areas.

Damming wild rivers poses long-term safety hazards. A combination of climate change and aging infrastructure has caused dams to fail in the Lower 48, causing flooding and massive impact to communities, including the evacuation of over 200,000 people downstream of the Oroville Dam in California.

In an era of dam removal, the Susitna-Watana Hydropower project defies modern clean energy trends. In addition to harming critical fish and wildlife habitat and local economies, large-scale hydropower dam reservoirs contribute to climate change. According to a 2016 peer-reviewed global synthesis, dam reservoirs create significant release of greenhouse gasses, particularly methane, as vegetation decomposes under a dam reservoir. The Susitna Dam would flood 40,000 acres of boreal forest, a carbon sink and key habitat.

There are better solutions for Alaska’s transition to clean energy. Truly clean and decentralized power generation is already a viable option in Alaska’s rural and urban communities. Notable solutions include consolidating the Railbelt power grid, new commercial-scale solar farms, which provides Railbelt power, as well as the Fire Island wind turbines. Of Alaska’s 200 rural micro-grids, over 70 have renewable energy components, according to the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Wind, solar, and appropriate micro-hydropower each have viable pilot projects in Alaska. The $5 billion to $8 billion that the Susitna Dam would commandeer could be directed toward truly renewable, sustainable power for Alaska.

Laura Wright is vice president of the board of directors of the Susitna River Coalition. She lives in Talkeetna.

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