As a Juneau resident who makes a living guiding out of Talkeetna in the summers I wanted to respond to a recent story on Alaska Energy Authority’s push to build the Susitna-Watana dam. Unfortunately the article didn’t highlight the risks of moving forward with the project. AEA’s proposal is to build a massive structure. It would stand over 73 stories and be the second largest dam on the on the continent. The estimated cost to the state is $5.2 billion but we know how construction estimates work, particularly when building in the remote Alaska wilderness. Whether the state has the financial wherewithal to move forward with the project is one question; they’ve already spent at least $95 million in public funds on this summers studies. Another question is whether the tradeoffs of building the dam and permanently changing the Susitna drainage is worth it? At stake is the health of the fourth most productive salmon river system in Alaska and one that supports the fragile, contentiously allocated Cook Inlet fishery. Beyond that, game resources would be impacted downstream by dramatically changing flows and upstream by a 40-mile long reservoir that is estimated to stretch up to five miles wide.
The issue isn’t whether there will be impacts but what those impacts will be and what the cost of this project is to Alaskans. State officials and AEA have chosen a fast-tracked approach to this project that is a reckless and irresponsible use of public funds. The problems with the fast-tracked approach are starting to add up. Scientists started their studies two months behind schedule because of a late breakup on the Susitna this spring. AEA has failed to negotiate access to native corporation land and one science team trespassed on that land, ignoring private property rights. The studies are clearly going to be over budget. With the problems adding up, Alaskans need to ask whether pursuing this colossal project is in the interest of Alaskans and whether a small team of state bureaucrats are up to the task of moving it forward.