Snow River dam project scrapped

Four weeks after federal regulators gave Chugach Electric Association a three-year permit to investigate the feasibility of putting a hydroelectric dam on the eastern Kenai Peninsula’s Snow River, the directors of the Anchorage-based utility decided to cancel the project.

“We are committed to sustainable energy, but we’ve heard from many Alaskans who do not want us to study this option, and we appreciate and respond to those voices and concerns,” said Chugach Electric CEO Lee Thibert in a Thursday press release announcing the cancelation.

Public meetings about the Snow River dam plan in Anchorage on Monday and Moose Pass on Tuesday drew about a hundred people each, many of whom vocally opposed the dam for its possible impacts to river health, fish habitat, scenery, and recreation.

Chugach Electric’s seven directors made the cancelation on the recommendation of the utility’s staff, after holding a discussion in an executive session, said Chugach Electric spokesperson Julie Hasquet.

“Our public engagement process worked,” said Chugach Board Chair Janet Reiser. “Sustainability is very important to us, and we want to find long-term supplies of energy that will allow Chugach to provide electricity to Alaskans for decades to come. Thank you to our members and other Alaskans who took the time to express their concerns to us.”

Chugach Electric’s directors are elected by members of the utility cooperative. Two of them are up for election this year in a race that began on Monday, according to Chugach Electric’s Feb. 2017 monthly newsletter.

Around mile 13 of the Seward Highway, the glacier-fed north fork of the Snow River emerges from the broad Paradise Valley to join the Snow River’s south fork in flowing to Kenai Lake. About three miles upstream of the confluence, Chugach Electric planned to build a 340-foot tall dam in the north fork that would turn the upstream valley into a roughly 5,300 acre reservoir, from which water would be carried through a tunnel to one of two possible powerhouse locations that would release it back into the river. Two smaller dams in low-lying areas of the surrounding hills would hold back the reservoir.

Prior to the cancelation, Chugach’s directors had dedicated $200,000 to study the feasibility of this plan over the course of 2017, positing a tentative timeline that might have brought the dam online in 10 years at the soonest. Chugach Electric Association Director of Governmental Affairs Phil Steyer said the Snow River plant would have had an estimated 70.9 megawatt generating capacity. This would make it the peninsula’s second-highest capacity hydroelectric plant after the 126 megawatt Bradley Lake plant, which usually limits its output to 90 megawatts because of transmission limitations.

Other existing or planned hydroelectric plants in the region include Chugach’s 27-megawatt Eklutna plant, Chugach’s 19.2-megawatt Cooper Lake plant and Homer Electric Association’s planned five-megawatt Grant Lake plant.

Between Eklutna and Cooper Lake, plus Chugach Electric’s shares in the state-owned Bradley Lake plant and the Fire Island Wind Farm, 24 percent of the utilty’s power is renewable. With the Snow River plant, Chugach Electric could have become 50 percent renewable, Steyer said.

Presently, the 76 percent of nonrenewable energy Chugach produces comes from Cook Inlet natural gas. Most regional utilities depend on long-term gas supply contracts with producers — in Chugach Electric’s case, with Hilcorp and Furie Operating Alaska. Steyer said gas supply contracts are becoming more expensive and briefer, typically lasting five years rather than the 20- or 25-year contracts utilities could find in the past.

At public meetings, Styer presented a chart of Chugach’s fuel supply forecast which showed the portion of its demand that can be met by natural gas dropping off after 2022 and falling off completely in 2034. Though Chugach presently has a gas supply contract with Furie Operating Alaska that will guarantee a consistent gas supply from 2023 to 2033, other gas sources show decreasing returns. In 2033 the Beluga River gas field, which presently contributes about 15 percent of Chugach’s gas supply, is expected to be depleted, according to the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

Speaking to the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board on April 13 in Soldotna, Steyer summarized other alternatives to natural gas that Chugach Electric had considered.

“We looked at a coal plant on the west side of Cook Inlet several years ago, and backed away from it,” Steyer said. “Tidal has a lot of expense, and we’ve not moved forward with a tidal project. We’re just not there yet with tidal … Utilities are pretty conservative organizations. We don’t like to have serial number one. Utilities like to have technology that’s proven. In 30 years, tidal may be in a different place.”

Chugach Electric also considered other hydroelectric prospects — reviewing a 1961 U.S Geological Survey study that looked at Lost Lake and Nellie Juan Lake, as well as the Snow River. The Snow River’s elevation change, potential reservoir capacity and proximity to the highway and the adjacent powerline made it an attractive site, Steyer said.

This proximity could have also made the dam visible from the Seward Highway, troubling residents of Moose Pass and Seward — each roughly 14 miles from the dam site — about the scenic highway overlook into the Snow River confluence. This and other concerns bubbled through the public meetings.

Fish

Snow River’s benefit to anadromous fish was one question of the project. Some attendees at the Moose Pass meeting gave anecdotal information: Upper and Lower Paradise lakes — upriver of the prospective dam in the North Fork’s Paradise Valley — have grayling and trout, one man said, but he’d never seen salmon or salmon carcasses that far upriver. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s anadromous waters catalog records several spawning and rearing locations for coho and pink salmon in the Snow River’s flatter and wider South Fork, but no anadromous use on the north fork further than about two miles upriver of the confluence. At this point the river emerges from a narrow canyon, which Steyer said has a 20-30 foot waterfall that impedes fish passage. The main dam would sit toward the back of this canyon, upstream of the waterfall.

The dam’s impact on the downstream environment of the Kenai River may be a greater concern. Seward resident John French, a retired environmental toxicologist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, spoke at the Moose Pass meeting as a citizen against the dam. He said its proponents have “little ability to predict downstream effects on salmon.”

French pointed to dams in the Lower 48 as examples, including some that have blocked sediment flow in the Colorado River, narrowing the river’s banks and degrading habitat and some on the Columbia and Snake Rivers that have changed flow patterns and stream tempature.

“Your ability to manage that risk is a very grey area,” French said to the Chugach representatives. “We say we can do this and that, and all I’m saying is I wouldn’t bet on it. In fact, I’d bet against you.”

Wild and Scenic

Dam opponent Herrick Sullivan has hiked the peaks overlooking Paradise Valley and said he values the region as a trail-less backcountry. Sullivan has attended meetings and filed as an intervenor against the dam with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He named routes to nearby peaks and glaciers that the Snow River reservoir would submerge: the north approach to Paradise Peak, ski routes on the south side of Andy Simons Mountain and paths to pack-rafting launch points in the headwaters of the Snow River and Ptarmigan Creek.

“Anybody who’s journeyed up that valley knows why it’s called Paradise Valley,” Sullivan told the Chugach representatives in Moose Pass. “This is what you’re doing: you’re looking to flood Paradise Valley.”

“And put up a parking lot!” a woman from the crowd added.

Among Herrick’s arguments against the Snow River dam is that Chugach National Forest — which owns nearly all the land the project would occupy — has sought to protect it in its natural state.

The Snow River was one of nine rivers Chugach National Forest proposed in 2000 for the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation that Congress can grant to rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values,” according to the designation’s website.

Though Congress has yet to grant the Snow River the designation, the Chugach National Forest’s 2002 Land and Resource Management Plan includes the objective of protecting the river consistent with its “tentative classification.” The 2002 plan is presently in effect, but since 2012 the U.S. Forest Service has been working on a revision that again recommends the same set of rivers for the wild and scenic designation.

The U.S code that creates the wild and scenic designation requires those who seek it to consider “the reasonably foreseeable potential uses of the land and water which would be enhanced, foreclosed, or curtailed if the area were included in the national wild and scenic rivers system.”

Chugach Electric’s Senior Vice President Paul Risse wrote in an April 14 letter to the Chugach National Forest’s Forest Supervisor Teri Marceron that the Snow River’s hydropower potential is one such use, citing 10 previous studies of this potential made between the 1960s and 1980s.

“It is our understanding, a suitability determination for wild and scenic management is supposed to take into account the consideration of other potential river uses that would be foregone by such a classification,” Risse wrote. “We would like to see more specific consideration in the Plan Revision of the hydropower values of Snow River based on the information in our recent preliminary permit application and the historical documentation noted above.”

Sullivan asked Risse at the Moose Pass meeting whether Chugach Electric planned to oppose nominating the Snow River for the wild and scenic designation. Risse said that Chugach Electric had asked the Forest Service to consider hydropower potential in their revision.

Opposition

Fishing guides Brad Kirr and David Lisi attended the Anchorage and Moose Pass meetings as part of a group, the Peninsula Rivers Conservancy, that they created to advocate against the Snow River dam. Following Tuesday’s Moose Pass meeting, Lisi said he was prepared to oppose the project for the decade or more that it might spend in planning or permitting. Two days later, he heard the news of its cancellation.

“We had a feeling it would end, though obviously not so soon,” Lisi said. “Once we started thinking about things that had been brought up at the meetings, like the glacial dams and the sediment load — not only our concerns we’d brought up, but also the things other people had brought up… we definitely started to think this thing might not go through, and what’s the reason for continuing to push?”

Though Lisi wasn’t at the Thursday evening Chugach Board of Directors meeting, he said friends had gone and asked the directors about plans for the dam in 2018. They’d hinted then that the project could be canceled, Lisi said.

Though the Snow River dam has been abandoned, Lisi said the Peninsula River Conservancy still has plans.

“In light of everything we’d learned in this process — the inefficiencies of the Railbelt utilities, the bottlenecks and things like that, and the way this project came about with not a lot of background research — it raised a lot of concerns with us about how it was produced and presented to the public,” Lisi said. “… Our overall goal is to bring people from a lot of different groups and organizations together to rally behind these sorts of things and hopefully put a stop to them earlier.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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