The Lake Dorothy hydroelectric project could get a boost from the governor's proposal to make the state Department of Natural Resources the lead agency for permitting of development projects.
Project developers had feared they would not win the support of the state Department of Fish and Game because the hydropower plant would divert water from streams inhabited by eastern brook trout, a non-native fish.
The federal agencies involved in the permitting process have suggested they won't object to building the project in the trout's habitat, said Corry Hildenbrand, president of Lake Dorothy Hydro Inc.
But federal agencies aren't the only ones involved. Relevant state agencies have about a month remaining in which to submit their comments and suggested terms and conditions of a potential license to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Fish and Game's Habitat Division has indicated it may stipulate that enough water be left in the streams to sustain the trout population, which was introduced in the 1920s or '30s, Hildenbrand said.
"That would make the project uneconomical to the Juneau community," he said.
The project, privately financed by Lake Dorothy Hydro Inc., would cost about $35 million or more depending on inflation, and at the earliest would be completed in 2006 and online in 2007, Hildenbrand said. Lake Dorothy Hydro Inc., like Alaska Electric Light and Power Co., is a subsidiary of Alaska Energy Resources Inc.
The project would tap Lake Dorothy and Bart Lake, which are about 16 miles south of downtown Juneau, to bring 63 "firm" gigawatt hours of power to the city annually. Classifying a power output as firm indicates the plant would provide that much power during the driest year on record. The plant's projected firm power output would be a sizable addition to Juneau's energy sources, which generate about 324 firm gigawatt hours per year.
Hildenbrand said the project is essential to ensure continuous clean energy for Juneau, which relies on hydropower from four plants: the AEL&P-owned Salmon Creek, Annex Creek and Gold Creek projects, and the state-owned Snettisham project.
"We're running out of firm hydroelectric energy in Juneau," he said. "If we don't build this project, we'll have to be generating power with fossil fuels."
Hildenbrand said he has asked Fish and Game to review the policy that requires it to protect non-native fish as well as native fish.
Clayton Hocks, a fisheries biologist with the Habitat Division, said the fish aren't doing any harm, and the agency would not change that policy.
"These aren't invasive species. ... This is a self-sustaining population that has been there for quite a while," Hocks said. "We haven't waived (the policy) in the past, but we'll consider all the options and weigh the alternatives."
He said it wasn't yet clear what conditions Fish and Game would stipulate.
"We haven't come up with a position yet," he said, adding FERC has the ultimate authority in the end.
The role Fish and Game would play in the permitting of the project is murky.
In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Frank Murkowski said he would give DNR authority over the Habitat Division's permitting function.
"On many occasions, the Habitat Division has been the sole agency opposing and delaying legitimate projects important to the state," Murkowski said last Thursday, specifically citing the Lake Dorothy project.
Hocks disputed that, saying the division has not stood in the way of the Lake Dorothy project.
"We have not delayed the review at all. It's FERC's review," he said.
Murkowski spokesman John Manly said Lake Dorothy is just one of a series of projects the division has held up.
"These are legitimate projects ... and if Habitat is holding up a project to protect a non-native species that was introduced there, that doesn't seem to me a legitimate thing to do," Manly said.
Manly said the executive order implementing Murkowski's proposal is being drafted, and it isn't clear yet how the power shift will work.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.