Devil's Canyon on the Susitna River, one of North America's most challenging and iconic whitewater runs, has been threatened with hydropower development and dreams of resurrecting this project persist. The Bureau of Reclamation originally looked at a project to dam the Susitna with a series of four dams: Devil's Canyon, Vee, Watana and Denali. The Army Corps of Engineers was up next in taking a look at things and explored options for a two-dam project. Shortly after the Army Corps of Engineers shelved plans for a project in the 1970's, the Alaska Power Authority took up the cause for a two-dam 1620 MW hydroelectric project (FERC P-7114). The proposed project consisted of the Devil's Canyon Dam, a 610-ft-high thin arch concrete dam with a 600 MW powerplant, and the Watana Dam, an 810-ft-high earthfill dam with a 1020 MW powerplant. With costs for construction at $5 billion, and $132 million invested in studying the project, Alaska Power Authority formally withdrew their application on May 15, 1986 and the river continues to flow freely. During this time whitewater boaters began to discover the river with Walt Blackadar leading the first expeditions during the 1970's (view the film).
In 2008 the state legislature began to formally discuss the idea of a state-sponsored hydroelectric project as an investment opportunity for the state's oil revenues and legislation to study the project was introduced as HB336/S246. The legislation directed the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) to prepare a proposal for an “appropriately sized Susitna hydroelectric project.” The proposal that emerged would have led to construction of the nation's largest dam since Glen Canyon was constructed in the 1960's. In July 2011 the Governor signed the bill that formally began the process of seeking a license for the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project (FERC P-14241).
After investing over $180 million dollars in this latest iteration of the project, Governor Bill Walker made the decision to cease efforts in June 2016 noting that the project did not make sense in the current economic climate. The Alaska Energy Authority contended that they would preserve the results of studies and work done to date should funding come available in the future. Let's hope those studies remain forgotten in a file cabinet never to be opened again.
The Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project (river mile 184.4) would significantly degrade the recreational experience on one of North America’s most iconic wilderness rivers. The Susitna is one of only a handful of large river systems around the world that remains in its free-flowing condition from the headwaters to the ocean. Experienced kayakers and packrafters from around the world are drawn to the unique challenge this river presents. The rapids of Watana and Devil’s Canyon include some of the world’s most challenging whitewater and the entire upper Susitna provides a unique opportunity for an exceptionally high quality wilderness river experience.
The proposed project would alter the Susitna River’s flow regime, and flood a river segment currently listed as eligible for addition to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, based in part on its recreational and aesthetic resources. Unique opportunities for solitude and wilderness exploration highly valued by our membership would no longer be available. While new road access and regulated flows through Devil’s Canyon could enhance accessibility to the challenging whitewater of the reach downstream of the proposed Watana Dam, the fundamental elements that define the unique qualities of this wilderness river would be lost. The prospect of enhanced access is not worth the desecration of one of our continent's most treasured free-flowing rivers.
In addition, American Whitewater is concerned with the significant anticipated impacts of a hydropower project on river ecology, terrestrial resources, habitat for fish and wildlife, cultural resources, subsistence lifestyles, and the economy of local communities that depend on adventure-based tourism.
While the proposed project would have had a capacity of 600MW, actual generation would be less than half of that. The generation potential is small relative to the economic costs (several billion dollars) and impacts to one of Alaska's most iconic wild rivers. Others have been down this path before and many millions of dollars have been spent on past hydro proposals. We continue to believe that conservation and efficiency improvements represent a better alternative to this project. Other more cost-effective and less environmentally damaging alternatives for energy generation do exist. To learn more check out susitnadamalternatives.org
Photo: Alan Panebaker in Devil's Canyon, by Shawn Robertson
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|Thomas O'Keefe||Seattle WA||Details...|
- Susitna River Hydropower Project - Does It Hold Water?
Report by Jan Konigsberg, Natural Heritage Institute, Anchorage, AK