Alaska Governor Authorizes $4.5 Billion Dam Project, Which Will Create 39-Mile-Long Reservoir

susitna river photo

Susitna River photo via Wikipedia CC

While many environmentalists are cheering the removal of dams as a way to bring health back to rivers and restore fisheries, a new project slated for Alaska could put one of the nation's tallest dams in place in the state. It would create a reservoir 39 miles long, and as much as 2 miles wide at its broadest point. In mid-July, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell signed off on a bill to authorize a 700-foot dam on the Susitna River, the 15th largest river in the US.

Anchorage Daily News reported of the press conference held on July 25th:

Parnell's press conference, attended by far more invited officials and dam advocates than reporters, had the air of a staged event. Surrounded by legislators, Parnell signed a [ceremonial] copy of the bill that authorized the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project...

"In the words of some sports fans here, it's time to go big or go home, with Susitna-Watana hydro," Parnell said. "It's a long game," he added. "You can't putt your way to building a hydro project of this magnitude ... it's time to smack the ball down the fairway -- it's time to commit."

Circle of Blue reports that the Susitna River is currently dam-free, but with this multi-billion dollar project, the nation's fifth tallest dam would be built on it. The result will be 600 megawatts of hydroelectric power, and a 39-mile-long reservoir halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

According to Circle of Blue, "Plugging the Susitna River would also destroy nine miles of spawning habitat for the Arctic grayling fish, and change river flows and temperatures, which would help some species and hurt others, according to a preliminary evaluation prepared by the AEA in November 2010. Salmon would not be affected because they do not spawn above the dam site."

The dam is scheduled to be completed by 2023, and would help with meeting a new law that requires the state to get half its electricity from renewable or alternative energy sources by 2025. High Country News writes that Alaska "was getting 53 percent of its electricity from natural gas as of 2009. Hydropower accounted for 19 percent, and other renewable resources for 0.2 percent."

Dams are a controversial issue. On the one hand, they can provide hydroelectric power, which is a cleaner energy source than fossil fuels. They also create jobs which, considering our current economy, would be highly desired. But on the other hand, they change the course and flow of rivers, and create massive lakes that drown habitat. They can be harmful to fish species that need to migrate up and down the river for spawning, impact crucial habitat for land-dwelling animals, and have major impacts downstream.

However, there are other alternatives to dams. For instance, there is an Alaskan village that is powered entirely by hydrokinetic energy, which is a turbine installed in a river that doesn't dam it up, but still generates electricity from water flow. While this may not be practical on a larger scale, it does serve to highlight that we have alternatives to these massive dams that don't require altering the natural flow of a river or the habitat surrounding it.

This particular Susitna River dam project was first put forward in the 80s but was set aside as oil prices fell. Now, the alternative energy source has been reexamined and approved. However, the permitting process has yet to get started, which will take an estimated six years and include an environmental impact statement.

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