Feds, public weigh in on Susitna hydro studies

  • By Molly Dischner
  • Sunday, October 26, 2014 10:50pm
  • News

A proposed hydro project on the Susitna River is the impetus for substantial fisheries research, but state and federal interests have disagreed on components of the first year of work.

The Alaska Energy Authority held a meeting on the fisheries studies Oct. 15, and provided an opportunity for federal scientists and members of the public to comment on the work that has been done so far, and what is planned for the second year of studies.

Federal energy regulators will be tasked with sorting out the disagreements regarding the work that has been done, and must approve of the second-year plan before it can begin.

The proposed Susitna-Watana project would be a 735-foot dam, with a 600-megawatt capacity, expected to supply about half of the Railbelt energy demand, according to AEA.

As part of the licensing process for the proposed dam, the energy authority has had to study the various resources that could be impacted by such a project, including fish.

The first year of studies was conducted in 2013, and AEA filed its initial study report regarding that work in June 2014.

Under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s timeline, the second year of studies will be conducted in 2015, although research was conducted this past summer.

AEA said at the October meeting that it would provide more information on some studies by the end of November. Over the winter, AEA and the licensing partners, including federal scientists, will have the opportunity for additional back and forth on the 2013 work and year two plans.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to then make its final recommendation on the year two studies by late April.

At the request of the federal scientists, much of the discussion so far has focused on the 2013 work; 2014 results were not presented at the initial study report meeting.

Earlier this fall, the National Marine Fisheries Service and AEA exchanged heated letters regarding the 2013 studies, with the federal scientists questioning the validity of some studies, and AEA defending the work done on its behalf, primarily by contractors.

The October meeting provided an opportunity for discussion about the differences, with fish identification one of the major sticking points.

The contracted scientists hired by AEA were tasked with identifying juvenile salmon to gather information on where fish live in the river, but had difficulty telling juvenile king and silver salmon apart. That was partially because there are a large number of fish to identify quickly, and the scientists want to minimize the time any fish is out of the water or being handled.

Fish distribution and abundance has been a major focus of the work so far, and one that has led to many of the questions raised by federal scientists.

For the Upper River project, data so far has largely been provided with minimal analysis, as a snapshot of what was seen in the river. At the meeting, scientists questioned whether different sampling methods had been correlated and how error was accounted for.

AEA’s representatives also explained some of the changes from the initial plan, and other changes they think will be necessary for the next year of work.

For a habitat study, the scientists hired by AEA were unable to complete the full sampling plan in the allotted time, and instead opted to subsample the areas to try and get an accurate, but less comprehensive, look at habitat in various tributaries.

During the meeting, Sue Walker, from the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Betsy McCracken from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said the federal agencies would like to see additional fish sampling for the upper river distribution and abundance study.

McCracken noted that the preliminary results show more fish in the upper river than originally expected, and Walker said that additional sampling could show how many fish travel upstream in the mainstem, and where they go, compared to how many enter tributaries.

The federal scientists also complimented some of the work done so far to track all five salmon species as they move through the river.

Walker complimented the work done to count fish with a sonar, and said that study was “really well done.”

She also said, however, that gauging the number of salmon swimming upstream is important so that the federal agencies can make a recommendation of what salmon passage mechanism would be appropriate at the dam.

Walker also praised the radio tagging work done as part of the escapement studies.

In addition to those studies, AEA and its consultants presented work to better gauge euchalon distribution and abundance, fish passage barrier changes and more.

AEA also proposed a change to the transmission line and road corridors being studied. Previously the agency was looking at a Chultina corridior, Denali West corridor and Gold Creek corridor; at the October meeting, the agency said it would add a Denali East option and eliminate the Chulitna corridor as a way to avoid several anadramous stream crossings in the other options.

The Denali west corridor has 38 stream crossings, none of which are thought to be anadromous, and the Gold creek corridor has 17 crossings, including several salmon streams. The Chulitna corridor has 23 possible crossings, including salmon in three — Indian River, Portage Creek and Thoroughfare Creek.

Cook Inlet Region Inc. Land Manager Dara Glass said that CIRI is concerned about the corridor selection process, and would prefer that AEA study all of the options before making a decision about which route to take.

Members of the public questioned the transmission corridor studies.

Becky Long, from the Susitna River Coalition, said she was concerned that AEA was trying to choose the least environmentally damaging site, but didn’t have exact locations of airports and construction camps on which to base that decision.

Jeff Davis, a Talkeetna-based scientist at the Aquatic Restoration and Research Institute, also suggested that the agency look at the potential water quality impacts of the corridors.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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