The Homer Electric Association made a presentation to a curious Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board on Thursday.
Joe Gallagher and Brad Zubeck from HEA presented the company's plan to study areas in the headwaters of the Kenai River for hydroelectric power potential.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved HEA's proposed study in the Ptarmigan Creek/Lake, Falls Creek, Crescent Lake and Grant Lake areas earlier this fall.
The approval of a study allows HEA to investigate the engineering, economic and environmental feasibility of constructing power generating hydroelectric facilities in these drainages.
At the Nov. 13 KRSMA meeting, Jack Sinclair, area superintend for the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, brought the FERC approval to the attention of the board. He pointed out that the Kenai River Special Management plan has guidelines regarding impoundment structures and suggested the board request a presentation from HEA.
In the 20-minute, slide-show presentation, Zubeck and Gallagher discussed the potential for each site to produce about 5 megawatts of power through low-impact hydroelectric facilities.
HEA hopes to model facilities after two existing operations in Southeast Alaska, certified by the Low Impact Hydro Institute. The idea behind low-impact hydro is to minimize the impacts of generating facilities on the surrounding environment.
This included prohibiting fish migration or altering spawning habitat, two areas KRSMA board members were most concerned about.
Ted Wellman and James Czarnezki asked for assurance that water levels would remain above salmon spawning habitat.
Zubeck said studies were not at the point at which HEA would know for sure.
"Our intent is to return the water to these streams above any fish spawning, rearing habitat areas," Zubeck said.
Czarnezki also wanted to know if the facilities would allow for flexible water flow down stream to mimic natural flows.
"My guess, and this is just a guess because we're not at that point, is that we will be able to control the flows," Zubeck said. "And if studies show that we need to operate in a prescribed fashion, that's what we would do."
Milli Martin, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly representative, also pointed out the upper reaches of Crescent Creek and Crescent Lake support a grayling population. She was concerned what impacts a hydroelectric operation could have on their viability.
Zubeck said he was aware of the grayling in Crescent Lake and said they were part of the reason the intake would be farther downstream.
"We wanted to avoid that upper grayling habitat," he said.
He explained that because the projects are supposed to be low-impact, the health and potential for impact on fish habitat was being taken into account.
He pointed out that Grant Lake and Falls Creek, for example, don't support fish. Other areas such as Crescent Creek and Ptarmigan Lake, however, do provide salmon with critical breeding grounds.
Board member Adam Reimer questioned Zubeck on whether HEA planned to try to build at all of its study sites or if it would prioritize.
Zubeck said each site would be studied independently, and that none of the sites were codependent.
"As we continue to evaluate these projects, we'll continue to hone in on the economics and whether or not they remain viable. And if they're not viable, we won't pursue them," he said.
Reimer also was curious as to what physical impacts the structures might have, pointing out that facilities could raise lake levels.
Zubeck said HEA was trying to balance economic viability with environmentally low-impact engineering.
"For a power utility, we like to have some storage," he said. "Each foot you increase in storage in the lake level, the more power you can generate, but we are looking to develop with a mind toward low impact."
HEA has three years to complete its studies, so it likely will be sometime before many of the questions posed by the board will have more definite answers.
"These projects are at the conceptual level. They're going to need to go through the whole gambit of studies, review, and so there'll be plenty of opportunity for agencies to look at these projects and determine whether or not they're going to have negative impacts on fisheries and the environment," Zubeck said.
Additionally, board member George Heim reported the River Use Committee had approved reducing the half-mile no hunting buffer set-up around the Kenai River to a quarter of a mile. This will be brought up as an action item at the Jan. 8 meeting.
Dante Petri can be reached at email@example.com.
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