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Research for hydro project continues in Susitna drainage

Posted: September 22, 2013 - 7:33pm  |  Updated: September 22, 2013 - 11:07pm

Research is underway in Southcentral to better understand the Susitna River drainage, which could eventually inform a decision on a hydro project on the upper stretches of the river.

This summer, researchers traipsed throughout the Susitna basin studying wildlife, human use of the area, fish in the river and characteristics of the area that could change if a hydro project was built.

Now, the Alaska Energy Authority, or AEA, is hearing third quarter reports on the research.

If built as currently proposed, the Susitna-Watana hydro project would be a 735-foot high dam upriver from Devil’s Canyon, creating a 42-mile reservoir. AEA estimates the project would cost $5.19 billion.

Preliminary information details the number of moose in the proposed inundation zone, where moose go to calve, and what caribou travel through the area. Much more research is planned, and reports on this stage of work are due to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, in February.

AEA’s Emily Ford wrote in an email that the February report will be an Initial Study Report, which updates FERC on the project status. It will include a summary of the information so far and a roadmap for future field efforts, Ford wrote.

The study site covers the entire basin, from Cook Inlet to the Upper Susitna.

According to information from AEA, an estimated 200 researchers worked on field studies for the hydro project this summer. In total, FERC has approved 58 studies on the potential hydro project, although not all were carried out this summer. Study reports to that entity are due in February.

The work is funded by the $95.2 million appropriation the Alaska Energy Authority received from the state legislature.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is doing the much of the fisheries and wildlife research, while other projects are hired out to independent research firms.

Sept. 10, ADFG provided AEA with an update on the wildlife studies, which look at moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolverines, ptarmigan and bears. The studies will provide baseline data from which to assess possible project impacts.

Last March, researchers put collars on moose, and monitored their locations to gauge twinning and calving sites and other movement.

In June, many of the animals being tracked were along the Susitna, with others found along other waterways.

The department also did a survey in the proposed inundation zone. There, 427 moose were counted in both 2012 and 2013, likely more a coincidence than the product of a precise count.

The study region includes both Nelchina and Delta caribou, and work has shown that there is intermingling between the two herds. Generally, the Delta caribou are coming from the Alaska Range to the study area to calve, and either depart after that, or spend a full year in the project area.

In caribou calving surveys, researchers located 128 cows and found that 66 percent were about to give birth, and 46 percent of the calves survived.

ADFG is also working on surveys to count Dall sheep in the Watana Creek Hills, West Kosina Hills and Chulitna Mountains. Other research includes modeling populations to try to better understand them, including with wolverine and bear data.

ADFG’s Mark Burch, who provided much of the department’s update on wildlife work, said that eventually, historical knowledge could also be used in conjunction with the current studies. Much of the bird research is being compared to studies from the 1980s, when significant work was done to study a possible hydro project.

ABR Inc., a private firm, also updated AEA on its work, which focuses on wildlife and botanical studies.

Brian Lawhead, from ABR, said the firm has done research on Dall sheep, bears, aquatic animals, bats, a variety of birds, and wood frogs, some in conjunction with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

ABR is also undertaking habitat and wetlands studies as part of its botanical work.

So far, more invasive plants have been found than rare species, and researchers are trying to be careful about not introducing other species as they move from area to area. The botanical side of the work includes sampling plots and mapping the riparian vegetation.

The September updates were just a portion of those planned for this month. Sept. 23 and 24, the presentations will focus on fish and aquatic resources, river productivity and river characteristics such as in-stream flow.

According to the preliminary presentation posted online, from July 15 to Aug. 8, 135 fish were collected on the upper river in the mainstem, and 4,083 fish were collected in upper river tributaries, including 53 kings in 7 streams. Most of the kings were collected on the Black River.

On the middle river, 3,164 fish were collected in the mainstem during the same time period. A much larger range of species was also found on the main river compared to the lower river.

Researchers are also looking at fish diets in two ways — via stomach content analysis, and also by looking at stable isotopes to get a sense of nutritional variation in the river.

Other sampling and fisheries research was also done this summer, which will be detailed Sept. 23.

More work is planned for the summer, and through 2014.

This winter, ADFG will continue its moose work, including a population survey and browse study.

Winter fisheries work is also planned, including sampling to look at abundance and distribution and continued aerial tracking of radio-tagged fish.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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