Voices of Alaska: Rushing Susitna baseline studies could cost Alaskans their salmon

Plans for the proposed Susitna Dam — and ecological research required for licensing it — are hurtling forward at breakneck speed. The licensing process, if successful, would result in the second largest dam in North America. A dam that wisely was not built when it was first proposed two decades ago. Dam proponents — the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) — and their contractors are presenting baseline data collected for the Susitna project in a series of public meetings. I recently attended one of what will be only a few of those meetings which opened my eyes to the rush to build the dam.

Coincidentally, I attended those meetings just weeks after finishing work on a large tributary to the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River. On that tributary, I researched the effectiveness of ‘reintroduction’ of once strong steelhead, king, and silver salmon runs. After decades of dam building and other development in the Lower 48, two-thirds of salmon runs are either endangered or extinct. In recent decades, biologists and managers have spent untold billions unsuccessfully attempting to restore those runs. Because of the dams blocking their migratory routes, however, reintroduced salmon on dozens of rivers will require transportation by truck or barge for as long as those dams exist. Indeed, in the Columbia River basin — the once largest producer of king salmon — salmon must ‘swim’ in trucks to survive. On some rivers in Washington State, those trucks are decorated with the words ‘Fish Taxi.’ While Anchorage taxi rides may seem expensive, that cost cannot hold a candle to the billions of dollars spent on fish taxis and other futile recovery efforts in the Lower 48, where a single salmon run has NEVER recovered.

One of many complications for salmon restoration efforts is the lack of ecological baseline data collected prior to human development. That information documents the current state of an entire ecosystem. In salmon country, rigorous baseline data describe not only salmon populations, but also the ecosystem upon which salmon depend and which they sustain — including water quality, insects, insect-sustaining algae, other fish, and even plants and mammals. Due to variability in natural systems, many years of ecological data collection are necessary in order to detect future changes in fish populations and their ecosystems resulting from any type of development. Most biologists aspire for long-term datasets, encompassing at least a decade. But as a minimum target, biologists and regulatory agencies shoot for a minimum of five years.

In the Lower 48, they simply failed to successfully characterize pre-development ecological conditions. Such quantitative information just doesn’t exist. Without that knowledge, they have no informed target for restoration. They know they want salmon back. They know they want sustainable subsistence fisheries, profitable commercial fisheries, and sport fisheries to boot. But they never measured how many fish that takes and, just as importantly, how many insects or bears or other components of a healthy ecosystem are necessary.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, AEA is proposing to build the first large dam in forty years in a country currently busy tearing dams down. The state is pursuing the dam in haste, at great expense to the public, and with too little consideration for the difficult, irreversible lessons we learned about salmon down south. In their rush, AEA and its federal regulatory authority, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), have gone to extreme efforts to abbreviate the licensing process, and the chronically undervalued process of characterizing current ecological conditions. Rather than relying on at least five years of data, FERC has allowed AEA to pursue a permit with just two years of data collection. The first year was 2013 — the year of the latest breakup on record in Alaska, which is unlikely (at best) to represent true baseline conditions. Adding a second year will comprise only one third of the average lifespan of a king salmon in one of the last rivers in the world supporting a healthy king population. While there is no question that sustainable and renewable power opportunities along the railbelt are needed, is it worth hurrying to repeat mistakes we simply cannot fix?

Sarah O’Neal is a salmon ecologist working both in Alaska and internationally throughout salmon country.

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