Before scientists in Alaska ever got a chance to study what might have been the strangest of all hydroelectric projects – one that could benefit salmon – it died in the face of public outrage.
Only weeks passed between the time the Chugach Electric Association first announced it was looking into the idea of a dam on the Kenai Peninsula’s Snow River, and the cooperative’s announcement it was abandoning that idea.
In a carefully worded public statement Thursday, the electric utility suggested it was only listening to its members.
Chugach “values the opinions of Alaskans and the communities we serve; (and) we have decided to end the Snow River study,” chief executive officer Lee Thibert said in a press release. “We are committed to sustainable energy, but we’ve heard from many Alaskans who do not want us to study this option, and we appreciate and respond to those voices and concerns.”
Moose Pass beat down
Earlier in the week, Chugach held a public meeting in Moose Pass to discuss the project and walked into an angry citizenry overflowing the local community hall.
A wide spot on the Seward Highway between Anchorage and the port of Seward on Resurrection Bay, Moose Pass is one of a variety of Alaska communities that officially aren’t really anything. The government calls them “census designated places.”
Officially, Moose Pass is a CDP home to fewer than 220 people, but it serves a population – some full-time residents, some seasonal – bigger than that along a stretch of highway from the end of Kenai Lake in the south to Tern Lake in the north.
And Tern Lake is just east of Cooper Landing, the heartland of Kenai River sport fishing. Dam is a four-letter word worse than the f-word in that community.
Only days after it was revealed Chugach had applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a permit to begin the long process of investigating the possibility of a dam on the Snow, the guides were rallying to stop it.
“SAVE THE SNOW! DON’T DAMN THE KENAI’S MOST SACRED TRIBUTARY!” fishing guide David Lisi proclaimed on his website, CooperLandingFishingGuide.com, March 5.
Whether the Snow is the Kenai’s most sacred tributary is highly debatable. A turbid glacial river prone to floods that regularly make a mess of fish habitat, it is rarely fished. Most anglers would likely consider the gin-clear Russian River just west of Cooper Landing the most sacred tributary.
The Russian has for decades been one of the best and busiest sockeye salmon streams in the state, while also supporting a first-class rainbow trout fishery.
“The best salmon fishing in the world happens right here…,” proclaims Bearfoot Travel Guides. That is arguably an exaggeration, too. Some people are unsettled by the fact the Russian attracts crowds of anglers, sometimes mobs of them. And there are streams off the road system with few people and equal numbers of fish that would be considered better than the Russian.
But there is no doubt that the Russian is a far, far better salmon stream than the Snow, none of which stopped the elevation of the latter to a special status once a dam was proposed.
“Typically, dams don’t help fish,” said Mark Willette, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
This is a bit of an understatement. Dams have a well-documented history of playing havoc with salmon runs. They block adult salmon from returning to the spawning grounds, and once the young of the few adults that do manage to fight their way back try to return to sea, the turbines of hydroelectric power are prone to grind them up Bassomatic style.
Dams were credited with the near death of salmon runs on the much-dammed Columbia River, though scientists in recent years have made major leaps in working around the impediments.
“While dams are known for the physical barriers they impose to migrating salmon, the way that dams hold back and release water for flood control and production of electricity can also have a huge impact,” Tom Rickey of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy reported in 2014. “Two of the biggest risks are ‘dewatering’ — when water levels drop so low that young fish or eggs don’t stay immersed in water — and when water levels fall quickly, leaving young fish stranded on the shoreline or entrapped in pools of water that can heat up or dry out.”
When scientists started studying this problem, they discovered the odds of young salmon surviving could be radically improved by changing the way the dams were operated to ensure steady water flows.
“Altogether the (scientific) team found a 283 percent increase in the freshwater productivity of the Hanford Reach fall Chinook salmon population during the years when the fish protection agreements were in place compared to the period before either agreement was enacted,” Rickey wrote. “The study estimated that in the most recent years of the study, more than 52 million juvenile salmon were produced annually, on average, in the Hanford Reach — higher than most people imagined. That compares to about 14 million annually, on average, before either agreement took effect.”
Enter Kenai Lake
Kenai Lake is the smaller of two big lakes in the Kenai River drainage. At 14,000 surface acres, it is only about half the size of the much larger Skilak Lake downstream on the Kenai River’s ramble across the Peninsula from near the edge of Prince William Sound to Cook Inlet.
It is also far less productive.
From 2005 to 2010, Willette and biologist Robert DeCino calculated the number of juvenile salmon in the two lakes. The production of Kenai lake was always out of proportion with its size.
“Skilak Lake always had the larger population of the two lakes, and the population estimates over these years at Skilak Lake ranged from 8.3 to 39.6 million juvenile sockeye,” the scientists reported. “Kenai Lake juvenile population estimates ranged from 1.2 to 3.3 million fish.”
Had the half-as-big Kenai only provided half-as-much production as Skilak, the number of young sockeye would have been in the range of 4.2 to 19.9 million. Even in its best year, the data indicates, Kenai lake didn’t come close to producing half the fish of Skilak Lake in its worst year.
Willette believes the issue is tied to spawning. Sockeyes spawn in creeks that drain into lakes. Skilak Lake benefits in that one of the creeks draining into it is, in fact, the Kenai River itself.
In some years, so many sockeye spawn in the Kenai upstream from Skilak that come spring when the water is low anyone trying to hike the river bank ends up slip-sliding on the carcasses of dead salmon that have lasted through the winter.
Other scientists have come to the same conclusion as Willette. Kenai Lake is under producing, and a lack of spawners and/or spawning habitat seems to be the problem.
“The distribution of juveniles between Kenai and Skilak Lakes is consistent with roughly 10 to 20 percent of the total population rearing in Kenai Lake,” Northern Ecological Services noted in 2004 while doing a review of Chugach’s Cooper Lake hydroelectric project. “Based on limnological data, Kenai Lake could support up to 31 percent of the total return of the sockeye salmon, making it underutilized by rearing juveniles.”
The Cooper Lake projects taps a lake in the mountains above Cooper Landing. A dam was built at the north end of the lake in 1959 to increase its depth by about 42 additional feet to boost power output.
The region has benefitted from power from that dam ever since, but the increased depth of the lake significantly lowered the temperature of the water spilling down Cooper Creek, and that has been blamed for a major decline in the productivity of the creek as a salmon stream.
As Willette said, “typically dams do not help fish.”
Enter Snow River
But the Snow River, the major tributary to the Kenai, is not typical. Thanks to the vagaries of Mother Nature, it has the same potential to cause salmon habitat problems as those Hanford Reach dams in Washington state.
“Glacial outburst floods, also known as jökulhlaups, originate from a glacially dammed lake adjacent to the Snow River glacier and have occurred regularly on the Snow River over the past century,” U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Bill MacFarlane observed in a 2005 study of the river. “These events occur every two to four years, generally in the late fall or early winter.”
From a salmon survival standpoint, the time for such floods couldn’t be worse. Eggs deposited in river gravels in August or September don’t have a chance of surviving if a flood washes them out in November or December, or shifts the river channel so radically that spawning beds are left high and dry.
And that is what the Snow is prone to do.
“High flows from Snow River outburst floods can cause considerable channel erosion and migration on the low gradient portions of the Snow River, and particularly on the lower Snow River upstream of Kenai Lake,” MacFarlane wrote.
“Dynamic shifting meanders and braided channels are common where the valley morphology allows for channel migration. Bank erosion in these areas can occur rapidly, and debris washed down into the lower Snow River includes large sediment, trees, river ice, and glacial ice. Sediment deposition and debris jams can contribute to increased dynamic changes in channel morphology.”
In a best-case scenario, the Snow, which contributes the greatest streamflow to Kenai Lake, would be one of the lake’s best spawning tributaries, but it’s not. So few sockeye spawn there now the state has never tried to enumerate them.
Fish and Game knows sockeye spawn in the Snow; it just doesn’t know how many.
“It’s possible,” Willette said, that if the flow of the Snow was brought under control salmon production in Kenai Lake would increase. If, as a condition for dam construction, Chugach were required to build salmon spawning channels along the Snow to provide more spawning habitat for wild sockeye, production might increase significantly.
Unfortunately, any investigation of these possibilities died when Chugach withdrew its permit application.
The new Alaska
Still, even if Chugach had continued and invested the money and the scientists had concluded that, “yes, we can make the Snow River better for salmon with a dam,” there is no way of guaranteeing that would happen.
Science is less than perfect at predicting the future. Doctors gave Jane Plant two months to live after the cancer she thought she’d beaten returned; 17 years later, the then 65-year-old Plant was telling the Daily Mail about how doctors got it wrong.
Scientific assessments of the future are based on probabilities. Probabilities define what is most likely to happen, not what will happen. Probabilities are for those willing to gamble.
At the Moose Pass meeting, Julie Hasquet, the communications director for Chugach, said there were a number of people opposed to the Snow River project because they were convinced that it would somehow destroy the Kenai watershed downstream, but there were more, she added, whose main desire appeared to be to keep the Kenai Lake area forever like it is today.
These are people who don’t want to gamble on a future. Many reading this can identify with that feeling. It’s the desire to stand still in time, to be always young, to have every day like the last day, to know only the good times. This is impossible. As a general rule, history would dictate that you can try to gamble on making yourself a future. Or you can get run over.
Nonetheless, Chugach expressed its empathy for both the Snow River opposition and the people who just don’t want change.
“The early public process led to the conclusion that the project is not consistent with Chugach’s strategic goals,” the company statement said.
“Our public engagement process worked,” added Chugach Board Chair Janet Reiser. “Sustainability is very important to us, and we want to find long-term supplies of energy that will allow Chugach to provide electricity to Alaskans for decades to come. Thank you to our members and other Alaskans who took the time to express their concerns to us.”
The problem for Chugach and all if its members going forward is that almost any of the long-term supplies – wind (can you say “unsightly wind farms?”), solar (can you say, “who can afford that?”), other hydropower (can you say, “Snow River?”) almost anything aside from buying more Cook Inlet natural gas – come with issues, because there are a lot of people in Alaska who, for worse or for better, really don’t like change, any kind of change.
Alaskans have had a good run suckling at the breasts of government and oil. Alaska economist Scott Goldsmith once estimated a third of the jobs in the state were tied directly or indirectly to oil, most of which is produced in far off Prudhoe Bay, which looks a lot like a moon station for most of the year and might as well be one as far as its connection to the rest of Alaska.
More connected to average Alaskans are federal, state and local government workers who benignly spend their time pushing paper, although this might not be so benign if it’s some paper you need. Whichever the case, they hold up another big part of the economy, but don’t force much, if any, change.
And then there’s the commercial fishing industry, which Alaska voters decided to turn into a closed club via the constitutional amendment that created limited entry in 1973. Ever since, even though most of the most valuable limited entry permits have moved Outside, commercial fishermen have been steadfastly fighting any development in the state because with a growing Alaska economy comes more people.
And more people almost inevitably mean change (not to mention competition for the fisheries resource), and, like most Alaskans, commercial fishermen fundamentally do not want change unless it is a technological change that allows them to kill more fish faster.
“Alaskans…exhibit conflict about whether they really want resource development,” economist Gunnar Knapp, the now retired head of the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research observed in 2012. “Almost every resource development opportunity—mining, logging, cruise ships, sport fishing lodges, fish farming—is opposed by local residents or other resource users who prefer to keep things as they are.”
Five years on this appears to remain the mindset. Some in Alaska do want some sort of development to keep the state’s faltering economy functioning. Few – damn few – in Alaska want any sort of development in their backyard – even if there’s a possibility it might enrich the environment so many Alaskans love.
It’s a catch, Catch 22. Alaska is open for business only when it isn’t open for business. It’s hard to keep an old economy going let alone build a new one when people are thinking this way.
One can’t help but wonder how long it can go on as the 49th state works its way ever so slowly toward a post-oil economy. It’s hard to imagine how an economy is made to work in a world where there is opposition to anything and every thing.