Multiple fisheries studies under way for Watana hydro


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Editor's note: Since this issue went to press, the Alaska Energy Authority announced Wednesday that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had approved the 14 remaining study plans. Now, 58 studies are approved, to be conducted over the next two years.

Fisheries studies are under way on the Susitna River north of Talkeetna as part of the regulatory process for the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydro project.

The Susitna-Watana Hydo project’s fish and aquatic resources technical workgroup held a quarterly meeting March 26 to discuss the fisheries study plan.

The Alaska Energy Authority, or AEA, is studying a 735-foot high dam on the Susitna River, above Devil’s Canyon.

That would create a reservoir about 42-miles long, and have an installed capacity of 600 megawatts, although actual output year-round would likely not meet that peak value.

With those details set out, AEA is now working on studies of what the dam means for the surrounding environment — including fish. 

Most of the currently available information about the dam is from studies done in the 1980s. But now AEA has hired R2 Resource Consultants to assist with a new round of scientific work.

Although AEA and R2 are developing the studies, in conjunction with other partners, and ensuring the plans comply with regulatory requirements, the working group brings together a variety of participants, including state and federal agency representatives and members of nonprofits, to discuss the plans.

As proposed, the study plan calls for more than 50 studies, which must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.

Of the studies, 13 are specifically categorized as pertaining to fish and aquatic resources, although others, including two looking at in-stream flow, could also be significant in determining the dam’s impact on fisheries.

AEA filed its study plan with FERC on Dec. 14.

So far, FERC has signed off on 44 of the studies, and asked AEA to do further work developing the others.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, filed a study dispute request in February regarding three of those studies, two of which are set to look at fisheries resources.

AEA has also updated some of the plans as FERC requested, but was waiting for a response from FERC as of March 26.

Other plans will be finalized later this spring, with an opportunity for the public, and agencies, to comment at that time.

The authority has also been instructed to include input from certain federal agencies as it modifies study plans, a point that attendees emphasized at the March 26 meeting, and asked the authority to remember.

At that meeting, AEA offered an update on each fish study.

The plan is to look at fish distribution and abundance for all parts of the river, salmon escapement, river production, the future reservoir area, fish passages and barriers, fish harvest downstream of the proposed dam, a genetic baseline study being done in conjunction with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, euchalon distribution and abundance, and a beluga whale study.

The studies NMFS is questioning look at fish escapement and fish passage at the dam site, according to Mary Louise Keefe from R2, who provided an overview of the work.

FERC had scheduled a technical conference for April 3 to discuss the proposed work, and differences of opinion.

Several studies, including the salmon escapement project, are currently in the field planning stage, while some, such as the fish passage barriers work, are still being modified to meet FERC’s comments.

The workgroup is also assisting with developing the studies, although it doesn’t have the final say.

AEA’s Betsy McGregor reminded the agency participants that ultimately it is not a consensus process.

Ultimately, AEA will be responsible for the final plan, and may or may not be able to incorporate every comment made during the meetings, she and others said.

FERC has instructed the authority to include some specific participation from federal agencies.

The final, approved, versions of the authority’s study plans will eventually be made public, although a timeline for that has not yet been set.

Some of the research has already begun. Last year, scientists began baseline studies of the area and worked to pinpoint some study sites.

AEA also has video of the area that will become a reservoir, and other parts of the river that could be affected by the dam.

That’s available to the public, but must be checked out from AEA’s Anchorage office either in person or via mail.

In March, some winter work was conducted, including trips to study sites, installation of some technology.

In April, scientists are set to continue the study effort by working on early life history sampling using fish nets and minnow trapping to look at juveniles in the river, and catch their movement out of spawning areas and into rearing areas.

Over the next few years, the working group will meet quarterly.

Although the March 26 meeting was just one day, future meetings could take longer as the studies begin and there’s more to discuss.

The working group’s next meeting will be a fish passage workshop in Washington, on April 9 and 10.

 

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

 

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