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Alaska editorial: Studying Susitna: State must make case for hydroelectric dam - again

Posted: July 23, 2012 - 3:36am

The following editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The state appears to be making good headway on the enormous job of reviewing every possible aspect of the proposed Susitna hydroelectric dam.

It’s about time, because all that scrutiny will require time. There is no sense in waiting to get started. The sooner we do, the sooner we can get the project built if it holds up under all the microscopes.

It seems likely to do so. The project died back in the 1980s under the weight of economic and environmental objections. This time around, both objections have lessened.

The economics have changed because fossil fuels are no longer the clear cheaper alternative for power production. Petroleum obviously has its price drawbacks, not only today but also into the future. Coal might still be a good alternative, but the regulatory crusade against it could make new power plants much more expensive.

Environmental concerns also have changed. Susitna still raises such concerns, but their balancing is much different. Today, the biggest environmental issue going is global warming caused by carbon dioxide and methane releases. Dams don’t burn fuel, so they don’t release those gases.

But back in the 1980s, the project drew fervent opposition on environmental grounds, and none of the fundamentals from that time have changed.

A dam will remove much of the silt from the Susitna River. That will change the character and biological productivity of the river downstream, potentially affecting everything from moose to fish.

The impounded water also will form a fluctuating lake with treacherous ice.

Earthquakes in the seismically active Alaska Range also are a worry.

All these topics will need to be rehashed in light of the latest science and engineering.

Nevertheless, besides its lack of carbon emissions, the Susitna project has several other environmental advantages - at least relative to most massive hydroelectric dams.

There are no large salmon runs above Devil’s Canyon, the raging stretch of whitewater where the dam would be placed. The project doesn’t represent the kind of slow fatal barrier to salmon runs that dams on the Columbia and other rivers of the Pacific Northwest have proven to be.

And because the canyon is deep and steep, the amount of land flooded behind the dam would be relatively limited.

The adequacy of the scrutiny given all these topics will be challenged by lawsuits, no doubt. That could delay the project. So it’s time to get started with the studies and do them well.

If we hadn’t canceled this project 25 years ago, odds are we’d be enjoying cheap, clean hydroelectric power today.

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