Anchorage Daily News (Voice of the Times) - 7/30/03
Susitna Dam deserves another look
By LEE NUNN
Congressman Don Young's suggestion that we take another look at the Susitna Dam project has resulted in some diverse commentary from the public and requests for more information. In the interest of uniting a broader group of Alaskans to take a look at activating the Susitna project, I submit the following:
In difficult economic times, government often considers priming the economic pump with public works projects, such as roads, bridges, and dams, to offer jobs for those in distress and looking for work. With the gas supplies in Cook Inlet already strained to meet the demand of both residential and industrial plant needs, it would be a good time to re-look at a renewable energy source like hydropower.
The design of the Susitna Dam project was essentially completed when then Gov. Bill Sheffield shut the project down. This design effort represented a $138 million investment by the people of Alaska. And that design package was properly archived and put "on the shelf" for just such consideration as Congressman Young has now suggested.
An Environmental Impact Statement was completed as a required part of this design and that was a very thorough and professional effort. That EIS is also "on the shelf," and could be updated without having to duplicate the millions of dollars of studies.
Dams like Susitna and Bradley Lake take a sizeable bond sale to provide funds for construction and long term financing. The cost of those bonds in the mid 1980s was much higher than would be the case today with interest rates now at all time lows. The suggestion that the cost of the dams might be double does not take into account that the cost of financing the construction and long-term debt is a huge part of the cost and that cost will be decidedly less.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, the cost would probably be less than the original estimate. Railbelt utilities agreed to buy the Susitna energy, as they do from Eklutna and Bradley Lake dams. Having the dam's power pre-sold makes bonding the project attractive to the large investment houses.
The railbelt intertie transmission lines are also in place. They would need an upgrade to handle the full capacity of the dams, but that was always a part of the Susitna project and would come on-line as the dam output becomes available.
Alaska has shown it can build hydropower dams efficiently with local labor and contractors. Bradley Lake was originally estimated to cost $406 million. It was completed at a final cost of $328 million, greatly reducing both the projected cost of power to the utilities, and the contribution anticipated by the state. This same level of competence and efficiency can be expected to be brought to bear to reduce costs on the Susitna project. This project would create many quality jobs to Alaska, in both construction and permanent operations positions.
Alaska has also shown that it can construct these projects in an exceptionally environmentally sound manner. Bradley Lake is one good example as is the Terror Lake hydropower project which was carefully built in the middle of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.
The Susitna EIS confirms that the dams would have minimal wildlife habit impacts in a state with both generous amounts of habitat, as well as a demonstrated ability to accommodate and execute sensible development. To my knowledge, these hydropower projects are the only public works projects built with oil revenues that are both paying their construction bonds off, and returning money to the public.
President Franklin Roosevelt and his predecessors designed and built Hoover Dam as a means to provide jobs while simultaneously leaving in place the resources of Lake Meade and Hoover Dam. That project is a demonstration of the success that properly timed and executed public works projects can have on a lagging economy. Hoover Dam is similar in design to the Devil Canyon Dam in the Susitna project.
There are similarities too, in economic reasoning for re-looking at a project that Alaskans have already designed and which could quickly contribute jobs to improve the economic climate in these hard times.
In my opinion, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that the Susitna Dam project should taken off the shelf and given a fair look. Congressman Young is on to something that could be very worthwhile to Alaskans.
Lee Nunn was the former district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District and was chairman of the Alaska Power Authority during the design of the Susitna Dam project. He has been an Alaskan since 1979 and lives in Anchorage.