Fighting for Susitna River salmon

(Photo by Travis Rummel)

by Sam Snyder

It’s mid-October here in Alaska, the days are rapidly growing shorter, and with winter on its way rivers will begin their annual freeze up. Some rivers, more than others, in Alaska change drastically with the seasons. The Susitna River is one of those rivers. Located in Southcentral, Alaska, flowing under the shadow of Denali, the Susitna runs for more than 300 miles from its glacial source to its outlet, where it dumps into Cook Inlet just north of Anchorage.

While I had spent a good deal of time visiting the tiny Alaska town of Talkeetna – one of the few communities that sits on the banks of the Susitna River, at the confluence of the Talkeetna River, it wasn’t until this past April that I truly began taking the time to get to know the Susitna. I had ventured up the road with my friend Ryan to Talkeetna to look for fish migrating out of the frozen Susitna back into the Talkeetna River and other tributaries. During the winter, the Susitna River freezes nearly solid. This freezing process shapes the entire system of life in that watershed. Rainbow trout, grayling, and Dolly Varden all venture out of the frozen tributaries to overwinter in the waters under the ice of the Susitna. As they made their migration from frozen winter homes back to flowing water, we hoped to pick a few up and start the fishing season off right. And start it off right we did, fishing from frozen banks of deep snow and ice, with cold water running through it all, we greeted a handful of fish on a bright and sunny day.

Fishing wasn’t our only goal, however. At the end of the day, we met up with a few Talkeetna folks at the center of a battle for the future of their river, for their home. We met for a community screening of DamNation. Produced by the team that created one of the greatest organizing tools for the fight against the Pebble Mine – Red Gold, DamNation details the historical impact of large-scale hydropower projects on the nation’s fisheries, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.  In so doing, it provides powerful lessons for avoiding mistakes previously made, mistakes the state of Alaska is pursuing with reckless abandon.

While not a publicized sport fishing mecca like Bristol Bay, the Susitna is a fascinating and unique fishery worth celebrating. The Susitna itself is a large, silted, glacial river. However, its countless tributaries, side sloughs, and connected streams provide habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon and abundant fishing opportunities for trout, grayling, and Dolly Varden. In addition to sport fishing, the Susitna system also supports a robust commercial fishery in Upper Cook Inlet.

As anglers, of course, we’re concerned about the impacts to fisheries from large projects like the Susitna dam.  The history of fish impacts from large dams is well documented in the Pacific Northwest, with large dams impeding the passage of salmon and steelhead beyond the massive concrete barriers. Given the unique, glacial and ice driven nature of the Susitna, drastic downstream impacts are a certainty as well. Load-following dam operations—like that proposed for the Susitna dam—severely alter the natural flow of river systems by dramatically reducing summer flows and increasing winter flows – opposite of natural flow regimes.

Further, the reservoir area above the proposed dam would inundate over 40,000 acres of one of the most hunted areas of the state. All told, from sport and commercial fishing, hunting, and recreational tourism, the Susitna river system supports an economy valued at $200 million annually, and supporting more than 5,400 Alaskan jobs.

More than the regional economy is at stake here with this project. At a time when king salmon runs are declining and the state is investing tens of millions to assess the decline of Alaska’s kings, it makes no sense to invest in a proposed hydropower project on the river that boasts the 4th largest king salmon run in the state.  This is one of many economic issues evident in the pursuit of the Susitna dam.

Since 2011, the State of Alaska has been investing in this ill-conceived idea to build the second-tallest dam in North America. No one doubts that the state has energy needs that need addressing. This mega-dam does not come close to solving those issues.

Electricity is only 20 percent of the region’s energy use; residents use 80 percent of their total energy to heat their homes. The dam would not solve the most pressing energy need: affordable heat. This is particularly true for rural communities, who need opportunities to lower their cost of energy for home heat.  Instead of rural communities, the Susitna dam serves the urban corridor of Alaska, known as the “Railbelt. For the price tag of $5.2 billion, the state could do a great deal to more address rural energy needs. 

Furthermore, upgrading transmission lines along the Railbelt will promote efficiency and bring communities additional power that is currently wasted, or stranded in the system. Along with infrastructure upgrades, investment in Alaska’s untapped renewable energy potential such as small-scale hydro, wind, geothermal and tidal power can provide stable energy throughout Alaska for future generations.

No one doubts that we need to have serious conversations that address future energy needs for the state of Alaska as it grows and changes. However, when it has been over 40 years since the nation has built a hydro project of this size is mindboggling. The lessons from the Pacific Northwest are too many to count.

And if films like DamNation do anything they show us that there are different ways to think about power production and our relationship to rivers and fisheries. Tearing down dams, restoring habitat is the trend globally. Studies and reports continue to mount underscoring the global costs, over benefits, of large hydropower projects. Yet, Alaska is ignoring these realities and trends wholesale.

Films like DamNation, just as Red Gold did, also provide inspiration for getting engaged in these battles. Across America anglers continue to stand up for fisheries and rivers of all sizes.  Our efforts range from restoring minute, yet crucial, poplations and habitat for native cutthroat trout to large dam removal and restoration projects like on the Elwha. In these efforts we learn that rivers and salmonids can be quite resilient. However, like Pebble, in Susitna we see an opportunity to never have to restore. We can keep rivers, fisheries, and communities intact from the beginning. This is then the battle against the biggest dam in America’s recent history.

A recent article by TU's Paula Dobbyn about the Susitna dam project is available here.

Sam Snyder is TU's Save the Susitna Campaign Coordinator.


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