Proposed Susitna Dam, AK

U.S. government officials have proposed to build a mega dam on the upper part of the Susitna River. If built electricity generated from this dam will supply electricity to all of the Alaskan Railbelt.

Beautiful Susitna River (Jim)
Beautiful Susitna River (Jim)

Alaska, the great wilderness as some would say is very sparsely populated, which leads to extremely high energy and electricity prices.  Alaska actually has the second highest prices in the United States, just behind Hawaii[1].

Over the years Alaska has pitch alternative sources of electricity to drive down the price. This article will address the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric project. In this project, researchers and officials are proposing a massive dam to be built on the upper part of the Susitna River. This electricity will supply a majority of the Railbelt area of Alaska for the next 100+ years with clean, reliable electricity[2].

This article will bring up the social and environmental justice concerns of the project. The Susitna River is one of the healthiest salmon runs in all of North America; many Alaskans and Native Alaskans in particular use the salmon runs for both nutritional value and economic prosperity.

GIS Model of the proposed Susitna Dam (AEA)
GIS Model of the proposed Susitna Dam (AEA)

Why The Susitna Dam? 

A Susitna Dam project was first proposed in 1976. After a comprehensive environmental study, environmentalists deemed that the dam was an environmental hazard. In addition to the environmental report, falling state oil revenues shut down the dam proposal in 1986[3]. In 2010 the Alaska Railbelt Regional Integrated Resource Plan (RIRP), proposed a 50-year power generation plan for capital improvements. This new bill needed lots of electricity to be generated within the Railbelt region, to restore infrastructure in the most populated and productive sectors. In addition to this bill, at the same time, The Alaska Legislature passed house bill 306. This bill instructed the state to generate 50% of its electricity from renewable or alternative energy by 2025[4]. Because of this vast need for clean, renewable electricity, the state decided to revert back to the Susitna dam proposal almost 30 years after its original dismissal.

If installed, the new Susitna Dam will be located on river mile 184 near Watana Canyon. They have proposed to build a 700-foot tall dam wall; this wall would back up the river and create a reservoir that would be 41 miles long and 2 miles wide at its widest part[5]. This electrical generation capability will generate more electricity than all of the current methods combined.

Proposed Timeline (SWD)
Proposed Timeline (SWD)

Who Will Be Effected? 

The idea of environmental justice works very well with the Susitna Dam proposal, for two reasons. First, the land that the reservoir will be built on is primarily on Native American land. Of the 229 tribes that are federally recognized in Alaska, 22 of them are located in the general proximity of the “study area[6].”

In 2011 HDR Alaska Inc, put together an Alaska Native Resource Data gap analysis to review how the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric project would affect the interests of Alaskan Natives. The findings showed that these land stakes could lead to financial incentive if the dam is formed and the river is flooded, but it will also displace many of the native towns and disrupt their sense of place. All of the Native Alaskan parties that have stakes in the project consider wildlife, moose, caribou and particularly salmon important subsistence resources and central to their cultural identities[7].

The salmon are incredibly important to the people in this region for a myriad of different reasons. All five species of salmon run through the veins of the Susitna and use it as a necessary and important spawning ground[8]. If the dam goes up, it will most likely deplete these vast and extraordinary salmon runs. Although modern dams have salmon bridges, they are not entirely effective.

Researchers surveying the wildlife in the Susitna River (SWH)

Discussion 

In Alaska, “subsistence generally refers to the practice of taking fish, wildlife or other wild resources for ones sustenance—for food, shelter, or other personal or family needs[9].” The state of Alaska is bound by law to allow Alaskan natives the right to use the natural land and wildlife for both recreational and commercial needs. It has been shown in a study of Alaskan subsistence that around 44 million pounds of wild foods are captured and consumed annually by rural residents of Alaska[10].

Although non-native Alaskans do live in in the rural parts of Alaska, the majorities of Native Alaskans reside in rural communities and rely heavily on subsistence food for survival.

Like stated above, if the Susitna Dam is installed, than it will significantly impede on Native Americans relation with place and space. Although very few people reside directly in the reservoir basin, the effects of damming the river will have detrimental effects on the downstream salmon population, as well as animal immigration patterns and forested ecosystems[11].

On one hand, if the dam is built it will provide cheap electricity to the entire Alaskan Railbelt, which will significantly help spur industrial productivity and living conditions for a majority of Alaskan residence. Considering that Alaska currently has the second highest electricity prices in the country, the Dam shows promise to many Alaskans who pay too much for electricity. In addition, with Alaska’s new goal to produce 50% of its energy by 2025, it puts the state in a large predicament. They want to grow economically, and also want to produce cleaner electricity. Because of this requirement I fully understand why state officials have proposed the giant Susitna dam.

On the other hand, rural Alaskans use the Susitna watershed significantly for their food and economic prosperity. If the dam goes in it will drastically affect their ability to track game, catch salmon and their spirituality with the land. Native Alaskans have been hunting and fishing on the land for thousands of years, so the implementation of a 47-mile long reservoir will impact their relationship with that land. In addition, although the hydropower does not release green house gasses by burning fossil fuels, it does release CO2 into the atmosphere through the decomposition of organic matter in the flooded area.

Instead of implementing the massive Susitna Dam In the Watana region, the government should implement a few smaller dams, which will have a far less ecological footprint. This paper takes into consideration the need for cheap, clean electricity in the Railbelt section of Alaska, but there are too many environmental and negative social implications that come with such a large dam. Therefore, if a few smaller dams are implemented, there will be the ability to create clean abundant electricity and not have the same environmental degradation as one massive one.

In addition to these smaller dams, Alaska also needs to implement more wind generating turbines, many parts of rural Alaska rely on diesel and natural gas fuel sources to generate electricity. If more wind turbines are implemented, it will significantly reduce the cost and GHG emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The largest areas of class 7 (superior) wind power found in the united states are located in Alaska[12].

Wild salmon swim up the pristine and free flowing Susitna River just below the site of the proposed dam (DamNation)
Wild salmon swim up the pristine and free flowing Susitna River just below the site of the proposed dam (DamNation)

After carful analysis and looking deeply at the situation, the Susitna Dam should not be the solution to cheaper energy. Although it would have a very strong ability to generate electricity, the environmental and social implications of such a project would be too much for the communities of rural Alaska and the ecological landscape. If the Susitna dam is built, it will be there for 1000’s of years and cannot be un-built. Rather, smaller more manageable dams should be constructed to sufficiently supply electricity to rural and urban homes, in addition to the implementation of more wind farms. Alaska has some of the strongest winds in the US, which can be very beneficial at providing sufficient electricity for communities in rural Alaska.

References

[1] U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. Retrieved, from http://www.eia.gov/state/rankings/

[2] Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project. Retrieved from http://www.susitna-watanahydro.org/

[3] Northern Land Use Research, Inc, 2011. Watana Hydroelectric Project Subsistence Data Gap Analysis. Prepared for the Alaska Energy Authority. Anchorage, Alaska.

[4] Northern Land Use Research, 2011

[5] AEA (Alaska Energy Authority). 2010. Railbelt large hydro evaluation preliminary decision document. Alaska Energy Authority, Anchorage, Alaska.

[6] AEA (Alaska Energy Authority). 2010

[7] Northern Land Use Research, Inc, 2011

[8] Hagenstein, R. (2015, February). Proposed Susitna dam an outdated option, would set salmon back. Retrieved, from http://www.adn.com/article/20150201/proposed-susitna-dam-outdated-option-would-set-salmon-back

[9] Northern Land Use Research, Inc, 2011.

[10] Wolfe, Robert J. and Robert G. Bosworth 1994 Subsistence in Alaska: 1994 Update. Report prepared by Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence, Juneau, Alaska.

[11] Feinup-Riordan, 2000 Hunting Tradition in a Changing World: YupOik Lives in Alaska Today, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press: 29-57.

[12] Wind. Retrieved from http://alaskarenewableenergy.org/why-renewable-energy-is-important/alaskas-resources/wind/

 

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