Hydro project planners submit environmental plans

ANCHORAGE — Alaska energy planners have taken a step toward licensing for the country’s second tallest dam by submitting a two-year plan for environmental work to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Alaska Energy Authority on Friday formally submitted its Revised Study Plan outlining 58 environmental studies over the next two years for the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, a proposed 750-foot dam and accompanying power-producing facility on the Susitna River, the nation’s 15th largest by discharge.

At a height of 750 feet, Susitna-Watana would be second only to the 770-foot Oroville Dam in California. It would create a 41-mile reservoir up to two miles wide.

The project carries a price tag of $4.76 billion, up from $4.3 billion estimated in February when a 700-foot dam was envisioned, said AEA public outreach liaison Emily Ford. It would be the largest state construction project in history.

“The collaboration that has gone into developing this study plan is monumental — a lot of different agencies and stakeholders,” Ford said. “Everyone’s really worked hard to develop a study plan that helps to balance the need for long-term power and also environmental concerns.”

Gov. Sean Parnell last week hailed submission of the plan as a milestone toward building the project that supporters say would provide clean energy and stable rates for more than 100 years.

At a maximum of 600 megawatts, the project could provide more than half of the electrical demand for Alaska’s Railbelt, the area from Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula touched by Alaska Railroad tracks representing 65 percent of the state population.

Parnell’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget includes $95 million for Susitna-Watana environmental field work, geotechnical investigations and engineering design.

The proposed site is 184 river miles upstream from the mouth of the Susitna River, and upstream of the powerful hydraulics of Devil’s Canyon, which can be negotiated by only the largest of Alaska’s five salmon, chinook or king salmon.

Critics say an obstacle in the path of migrating salmon is just one of the negative effects the hydroelectric project would have. Richard Leo, board president of the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives, said the dam will radically change winter river flow and could harm salmon in their first year of life.

The proposed study period for those effects and other environmental concerns is far too short, he said.

Critics also contend the dam will be unnecessary. Parnell’s budget includes $50 million for development of a pipeline that could one day carry North Slope natural gas to the Railbelt, Leo said. Alaska homes will need gas for home heating, he said, and when a major pipeline or other gas transmission system inevitably is built and used to deliver gas for power generation, the need for the dam will disappear.

Ford said the project is unique because of licensing work done in the 1980s. The 58 new studies will build on 3,000 previous reports, plus early field work started this year.

An independent auditor is reviewing the latest cost projection, which includes preconstruction activities including licensing costs of $342 million.

FERC is the licensing entity for non-federal hydro projects. The public has until Jan. 18 to comment on the Revised Study Plan. FERC is expected to accept or reject the study by Feb. 1.

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