The Tundra Drums - CAUYAT - The Beat of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta


Salmon in jeapordy from hydroelectic dam


Salmon and fishing are the lifeblood of many Alaskans from the Y-K Delta to the Susitna River in Southcentral. The Susitna’s chinook salmon run, the fourth largest in the state, would be impacted by a proposed 735-foot dam. More troubling is how much all Alaska would impacted by the Susitna Dam’s staggering cost.

The state of Alaska wants to build that second tallest of all America’s 80,000 dams. The project has been proceeding quickly toward construction for two years. Yet few people know much about it.

The $5.2 billion (and rising) price tag would be the most expensive state project ever built, with the potential to dominate state spending to the detriment of the rest of Alaska. $171 million of state dollars has already been spent on this project, with more expected to be appropriated next year.

Here are the facts, taken from documents published by the Alaska Energy authority, the state agency that would build and own the dam.

It would produce an average of 300 megawatts of electricity. (The Grand Coulee dam in Washington produces 2,500 megawatts.)

An 8,000-foot runway for 737 cargo jets, access roads, powerlines, open-pit gravel mines, and a 40-mile long reservoir would crisscross one of the state’s prime hunting areas now rich with caribou, moose and bear.

The dam site is in an active earthquake zone where a 7.9 quake collapsed mountainsides in 2002.

The number of temporary jobs that would be created at the height of the construction boom would be less than 1,000, with fewer than 20 long-term jobs.

Winter water discharge from the dam would be up to 10 times greater than normal winter flows. Summer flows would be dropped by more than half.

These facts reveal a serious threat to what we Alaskans value.

Every other large dam ever built on a free-flowing salmon river has reduced or even eradicated its salmon. First-year Susitna salmon juveniles require slow steady water to survive the winter. The massive releases of water from the dam in winter will have potentially disastrous results. Those winter flows will also prevent any ice cover for at least 40 miles downstream of the dam, with unstable ice conditions for snowmachining or any kind of river travel below that.

The cost of the dam’s electricity goes up in direct proportion to the dam’s price tag. Alaska’s mega-projects often end up being more expensive than original estimates. Since the state failed to acquire many permits from Native landowners in the dam area for the project’s initial studies, costs are already rising. And rural Alaska gets absolutely nothing from the dam, except a loss of state monies that could go to village energy projects.

Natural gas now supplies the vast majority of both heating fuel and cheap electricity to the same area the dam would serve – the Southcentral population centers like Anchorage. The state legislature this year passed a natural gas pipeline bill that begins maintaining and extending those supplies in the already energy-wealthy region. A gas pipeline would make the dam unnecessary.

Bethel pays four times more for electricity than the state average. Some rural areas have even higher rates. The best the Susitna dam could do would be to lower by a few cents the rates for those who already have cheap electricity.

Investing in wind and small-scale in-stream hydro and bio-mass power generation, as well as geothermal and tidal power, is Alaska’s energy future for all of Alaska. Massive destructive hydro-electricity dams were abandoned in the Lower 48 long ago. The costs, risks, impacts, and problems are too great.

So why is the Parnell administration so relentlessly pushing the Susitna dam? Why push a project that drains the state’s coffers, eliminating the opportunity for local energy projects in the rest of the state? Why push a project that threatens the livelihoods of Alaskans who depend on a healthy river for their fish, game, and travel? Why push a project that costs twice as much as the entire state capital budget for such limited benefit?

The best answer is that most Alaskans haven’t yet pushed back, because most still don’t know what’s happening.

Now that you do know, spread the word. Ask your legislators to work toward dividing those many billions of state dollars among all regions that need electricity and heating fuel. We’re all a part of Alaska’s energy future, if we raise our voices.

For more info:

Denis Ransy is retired from commercial fishing in the Yukon River, Bristol Bay, Prince William Sound, and Cook Inlet. He lives near Talkeetna


Reader Comments

1TKALTS writes:

This letter says it all. This proposed dam won't benefit all Alaskans. It would bankrupt us. Who will REALLY benefit from it? We need to find out. Most of all, we need to STOP THE DAM.


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