Stopping the Susitna

The proposed dam on Alaska's iconic Susitna River

By Alan Panebaker

After lying dormant for more than 20 years, the plan to dam Alaska’s iconic Susitna River is back on the table.

The idea to dam the river, best-known for the classic big water Class V Devil’s Canyon, started in the 1970s. The Alaska Energy Authority formally withdrew an application in 1986, but a few years ago, the state breathed new life into the idea and directed the authority to seek a license for a dam on the river above Devil’s Canyon.

Wayne Dyok, project manager for the Alaska Energy Authority, says the project dates back to the 1950s when the Army Corps of Engineers did some work scoping the area. The original proposal would have built two dams: the Devil’s Canyon Dam and the Watana Dam upstream.

The proposed project would be a 700-foot-high, 600-megawatt facility upstream of Devil’s Canyon. It would produce enough energy to power half of the rail belt from Seward to Fairbanks.

The state doesn’t plan to break ground until 2017, at the earliest, since it still needs to go through federal environmental permitting and licensing.

Alaska's Susitna River as seen from the floatplane ride to the put in. Photo: Shawn Robertson

Dyok says the state is trying to meet a goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2025, and hydro-power is a good way to do that. It will also help the state diversify its energy portfolio, Dyok says.

But for big water Class V paddlers seeking a multi-day adventure, Alaska’s renewable energy would come at a high cost.

One of the three rivers included in the storied North American big water “Triple Crown” (along with the Stikine and Alsek), The Susitna is a life-changing trip. From the moment you take off in the float plane in Talkeetna to the time you float back into town some 48 hours later, it’s pure magic. Nothing compares to being that far out in a committing canyon with nothing but your friends and your wits to save you when things go awry.

American Whitewater opposes the project.

Tom O’Keefe, Northwest stewardship director for the organization, said the initial proposal would leave the whitewater in Devil’s Canyon intact, but all the previous proposals have included two dams. O’Keefe says it wouldn’t be surprising to see the state pushing for a second dam that would flood the canyon.

The current proposal, which incorporates plans for the largest dam built in the United States since the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, according to O’Keefe, could mean regulated flows in Devil’s Canyon and theoretically drive-in access to the river.

“It’s one of the biggest remaining wild, free flowing rivers in country, and there’s only a few of those left,” O’Keefe says.

Environmental groups have chimed in also.Louisa Yanes, an energy organizer for Alaska Center for the Environment, says environmental groups are concerned about the effects the dam will have on aquatic life.

A preliminary evaluation of the project by the Alaska Energy Authority found it would destroy nine miles of spawning habitat for Arctic grayling. The project would also impact water quality, sediment loads and water temperature.

To find out more about the project, visit: http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Project/view/id/susitna/.

Also, check out the 1976 footage of the second descent of the Susitna’s Devil’s Canyon below.


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Add a Comment

  • J K

    Another resource: Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives: http://susitnadamalternatives.org

  • Travis

    Editors –

    When the State of Alaska says it wants a “sustainable” energy, it would seem
    we need to ask about he definition of sustainable.

    Are dams “sustainable” energy if their impact of rivers is not sustainable? Certainly if wind turbines resulted in the loss of key bird species in a given geographic area around them, it is highly likely we would not cal them sustainable energy.

    In the pure sense of the idea, hydropower is nowhere near sustainable. Alaska should think twice before moving ahead with this project that will change the character of this river.

    Travis W.

  • Robin Horst

    The needs of “the many” must prevail over the wants of “the few”. If “the few” have a better idea then lets hear it. Coal? Nuclear? Get real….

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