In one possible future, a footbridge may cross Grant Creek about a half mile from Grant Lake, its source in the hills above Moose Pass. The bridge would connect two segments of the Iditarod National Historical Trail, assisting hikers and mushers following the Gold Rush-era mail route from Seward to Nome.
In another, the same point on the riverbank could contain a parking lot, access road, and a powerhouse in which two turbines spun by water diverted from Grant Lake will generate about 5 megawatts of renewable electricity for members of Homer Electric Association.
Since 2009 HEA has been developing plans to draw water from Grant Lake for a hydroelectric project which, according to HEA’s Manager of Fuel Supply and Renewable Energy Development Mike Salzetti, could contribute 4 to 5 percentage points to the portion of HEA’s power generation that comes from renewable sources (presently, Salzetti said, about 10 percent of HEA’s power comes from the Bradley Lake hydroelectric plant on the south side of Kachemak Bay; the rest is from non-renewable natural gas).
What would the project mean for Grant Lake itself, and for Moose Pass? That question was considered by state and federal officials who on Sept.7 visited the riverbank area that may one day have either the powerhouse or the footbridge — and by the approximately 30 Moose Pass and Seward residents who joined them at a public meeting that night.
Salzetti, Licensing Specialist Cory Warnock of consultant group McMillen Associates, and fishery biologist John Stevenson of BioAnalysts, Inc. led a hike to the proposed site where the Grant Lake powerhouse would generate electricity from the flow through a diversion tunnel tapped into Grant Lake, then release the water to its natural outlet in Grant Creek. The group included 3 permitters from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — the agency that will accept or reject the license application HEA submitted for the project in April 2016 — as well as representatives of the U.S Forest Service, which owns Grant Lake, and a hydrologist from the National Marine Fishery Service who was evaluating possible impact on anadromous fish that use Grant Lake and Creek.
The group first followed the Forest Service-maintained Vagt Lake trail from the Seward Highway to its end at Vagt Lake. From Vagt Lake to Grant Creek they hiked the Iditarod trail, marked by blue plastic ribbons tied around trees.
Since it was commissioned in 1978, about half of the proposed 2,300-mile Iditarod National Historical Trail has been built in segments around the state, maintained by assorted groups and agencies under the direction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Part of the trail between Seward and a point near Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, including the portion near Moose Pass, was created and has been maintained since 1982 by the local volunteer group Seward Iditarod Trail Blazers, according to correspondence from the Trailblazers’ president Dan Seavey to FERC.
Shortly after the HEA-led group left Vagt Lake on the blue-blazed trail, Chugach National Forest Ranger Karen Kromrey spotted a pink plastic ribbon tied to a tree a short distance off the trail to the west. She believed the pink blazes marked HEA’s proposed re-route of the Iditarod Trail, which would avoid the powerhouse by swerving downhill to the west, crossing Grant Creek about a quarter mile downstream.
“It’s a challenging area to plan trails,” Kromrey said, citing the hilliness and wet, loose soil of the area. In the future she plans to hike HEA’s proposed route to see it for herself.
Salzetti and Warnock said the new trail and bridge — which HEA proposes to build and pay for — will be an improvement for both hikers and trailbuilders. Salzetti said the reroute would offer a greater variety of scenery, opening into meadows in addition to passing through dense woods. Warnock said HEA’s downstream bridge over Grant Creek would cross a shorter span than the one near the powerhouse site and therefore be cheaper to build.
At the public meeting, the trail reroute drew criticism. Seavey, a Seward resident and Iditarod musher, attended and said his group had been under-informed and unconsulted about the trail plan.
“We haven’t been advised, we haven’t been brought into the realm of planning, or anything — just ‘here it is.’ And we don’t accept that,” Seavey said. “So plan on some opposition.”
The Iditarod Trailblazers filed a motion to intervene with FERC on Sept. 19, and the Bureau of Land Management’s Anchorage field office filed for intervention Sept. 16. When a group intervenes in a FERC decision, the FERC permitting staff are required to specifically address their concerns in a license decision. If a matter isn’t resolved by the decision, the 4 FERC commissioners appointed by the U.S President would vote on the question. Interveners are also able to request a rehearing of a decision or appeal it to a U.S Circuit Court.
Other matters of recreation and aesthetics were put forward at the public meeting. Bruce Jaffa, a pilot and owner of a construction business, said he was one of the few Moose Pass residents in favor of the project from the very beginning. He still favors it, though he has some questions. Jaffa said he lands his floatplane on Grant Lake in both summer and winter, and is “used to a certain amount of water and the ability to get to the shore.” The water tapped from Grant Lake — taken via ports in a concrete column rising from the tunnel through the lake bottom — would drop the lake’s water level, exposing some shoreline.
“With the horizontal separation between current shore and future shore, I’d like to understand how the water would drop,” Jaffa said.
Nick Tackett, a FERC wildlife biologist representing the agency at the meeting, told Jaffa that FERC had also requested more information from HEA about the lake’s drop and expected HEA to answer later in the fall or early winter.
Other aesthetic and recreation concerns focused on the access road would lead to the powerhouse from the Seward Highway by bridging Trail Lake at its narrowest point, continuing ultimately to Grant Lake itself. Although HEA has decided the road would be officially closed to the public, some at the meeting said it would still bring an increased human presence to the now relatively inaccessible Grant Lake.
“If you run a road up to Grant Lake, you’re going to have curious people on it with vehicles, regardless of what HEA wants them to do,” said Moose Pass resident Bob Baldwin. “It’s naive to think any different.”
Some of HEA’s recreational studies used traffic counts of trails — placing cameras at points along the paths of the Vagt Lake and Saddle Trails — as measures of the area’s recreational uses. Seward resident Mark Luttrell said these measures are inadequate to predict the impact of a new road.
“I don’t think the Vagt Lake trailhead is very much connected recreationally to the land around the access road,” Luttrell said. “They’re separate places. I don’t want (HEA) to think that documenting use on Vagt Lake would serve as a surrogate for access and use on the proposed road.”
Cassie Thomas of the National Park Services’ Hydropower Licensing Program also told FERC permitters at the meeting that the recreational study in HEA’s license application hadn’t fully considered the road.
“You’re talking about recreation in terms of outhouses and picnic tables,” Thomas said. “But in the minds of most Alaskans, there’s already a recreational facility there, it’s just a matter of access.”
In August 2016 the Bureau of Land Management gave the Kenai Peninsula Borough approximately 1,000 acres of land in the area, to be designated recreational. The grant included land around Grant Creek’s outfall from Grant Lake.