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The False Promise of Clean Power: Image

The Susitna-Watana Hydro project was first proposed in the state of Alaska in the 1950s. After its first proposal, the Alaska Energy Authority explored the potential of this large Hydroelectric dam upstream of Talkeetna, 184 miles from the mouth of Cook Inlet again in the 1980s and in 2011-2014 . Concerns over the impacts of the dam on the robust salmon runs of the area which provide recreational, subsistence, and commercial value to the region as well as concerns for the ability for local wildlife to adapt to the ecological shift that the proposed dam would bring, led to a lack of public support of the project. In addition to substantial ecological concerns, concerns over dam integrity in the downstream village of Talkeetna were a factor in the shelving the dam project. It is estimated that the dam would cost $5.65 billion to create. Due to these and other factors, the Susitna-Watana Hydro project has been denied final permitting on multiple occasions. 

The many reasons that the dam is not the solution to Alaska Energy Challenges include:

Large-scale hydropower is NOT Alaska’s climate solution

In an era of dam removal, the Susitna-Watana Hydropower project defies modern clean energy trends.  Supporters of the project, promise long-term renewable energy for railbelt communities.   However, mega-hydro is not clean, renewable energy. In addition to harming critical fish and wildlife habitat and local economies, large-scale hydropower dams contribute to climate change.

Dam reservoirs produce significant greenhouse gasses

The greatest misconception about large-scale hydropower is that it is carbon-neutral. According to a 2016 peer-reviewed study[1], dam reservoirs create a significant release of greenhouse gasses. As an area is flooded for a dam reservoir, vegetation and soil decompose, releasing carbon dioxide and methane. Scientists estimate that methane, which is 34 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, makes up 80% of emissions from reservoirs.

In the case of the Susitna Dam, 40,000 acres of boreal forest, which acts as a carbon sink, would be flooded and lost.

Wild rivers regulate the carbon cycle

Wild rivers are part of the earth’s natural system to regulate the global carbon cycle. Rivers carry decaying organic matter from the watershed to the ocean, where it is “sunk” and not released into the atmosphere. Two hundred million tons of carbon are transported to the ocean by the world’s river systems yearly.[2] Damming rivers disrupts this natural process.

Climate change brings unstable weather; intact ecosystems are a buffer 

Climate change creates increasingly unpredictable weather, in Alaska and globally. Floods, unusual rainfall, sea level rise, drought, river temperature rise, and wildfires each impact wildlife, fish, and human lives. In the face of these changes, natural systems such as intact watersheds, ecosystems and migration corridors offer a refuge against the effects of an unstable climate.

The Susitna dam would irreparably alter river flows below the dam site and halt fish passage above it. In an era when climate change impacts fish and wildlife populations, altering natural systems further decreases the resilience of salmon and other important fish and wildlife species that Alaskans rely on.

Mega-dams jeopardize human communities

Damming wild rivers makes humans more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as well. In the US alone, a combination of climate change, aging infrastructure, and lack of maintenance has caused dams to fail, causing flooding and massive impact to communities, including the evacuation of over 200,000 people downstream of the Oroville Dam.[3] Often, river flow data is based on outdated precipitation patterns that do not account for a changing climate. Glacially fed rivers such as the Susitna pose a particular risk. As higher temperatures increase glacial melt, causing higher river flows, dam infrastructure will be under threat.[4] Rather than dammed watersheds, Alaska needs free rivers that can handle increased weather variation as a result of climate change.

Alaska’s renewable energy future does not require mega-hydro  

Truly diverse, decentralized power generation is already a viable option in Alaska’s rural and urban communities. Notable solutions include the new, commercial-scale Willow solar farm, which provides railbelt power[5], 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 $7-10 billion that the Susitna Dam would commandeer could be directed towards truly renewable, sustainable power for Alaska.


[1] Bridget R. Deemer. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Reservoir Water Surfaces: A New Global Synthesis”  BioScience, Volume 66, Issue 11, 1 November 2016, <>

[2] Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "How rivers regulate global carbon cycle." ScienceDaily. 13 May 2015. <>.

[3] Sobel, Adam. “Is the Oroville Dam Failure a Climate Change Story?” Center for Climate and Life at Columbia University. 8 March 2017.

[4] Wrong Climate for Big Dams. International Rivers.

[5] Bremer, Elwood. Alaska’s largest solar farm opens in Willow. Anchorage Daily News. 18 November, 2019.

The False Promise of Clean Power: Service
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