Chugach kills Snow River hydropower study

Public pushback persuaded Chugach Electric Association to punt on its proposal to build a $500 million-plus hydropower project at the headwaters of the Kenai River less than four months into a decade-long process.

The Anchorage electric cooperative announced late Thursday that it is canceling further study of a concept to dam the Snow River near Seward, which is the feeder system to Kenai Lake and the upper reaches of the Kenai watershed.

The Chugach board of directors had allocated $200,000 for very preliminary study work of the concept this year, but heeded a recommendation from management to stop the work after a series of meetings with stakeholder groups, according to a utility press release.

Chugach voluntarily held informational public meetings in Anchorage and Moose Pass earlier in the week and received significant criticism from individuals concerned about the downstream impacts the project could have on the system’s prized salmon fisheries.

“As a member-owned cooperative that values the opinions of Alaskans and the communities we serve, we have decided to end the Snow River study. 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,” Chugach CEO Lee Thibert said in a formal statement.

On Dec. 23 Chugach submitted a preliminary permit application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to give the project standing with the agency and allow it to carry out the requisite studies before advancing to more detailed and costly development phases.

The utility’s initial idea was to dam the Snow River several miles upstream of where it crosses under the Seward Highway and dumps into Kenai Lake to produce 75 megawatts of hydropower.

Chugach and other Southcentral utilities that rely on Cook Inlet natural gas for the majority of their fuel supply have not been able to secure long-term supply contracts of late and a hydro project could provide a stable-priced power source for upwards of 100 years, Chugach officials said.

They also noted the three-dam system and associated 5,000-acre reservoir would be well upstream of salmon habitat and not impede fish passage but skeptical sport and commercial fishermen emphasized other impacts such as changes to downstream water flow rates, temperature and turbidity that could upset the Kenai’s immensely popular fisheries.

Chugach officials also stressed that the proposal was in its infancy and would be at least 10 years out from electric generation.

In February the Chugach board adopted the “triple bottom line” decision-making process that demands all business decisions be socially and environmentally responsible in addition to being a sound economic move. Thibert said at the April 17 Anchorage meeting that strong public opposition to the Snow River project would cause the utility to drop the idea as a result.

“Our public engagement process worked,” Chugach Board Chair Janet Reiser said. “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.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

04/21/2017 - 11:21am