Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Kenai River be dammed — Government planned to plug Kenai Lake for hydro power

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories examining possible Homer Electric Association hydroelectric projects near Moose Pass. Next week’s story will focus on controversy surrounding the existing hydroelectric project at Cooper Lake.

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

If federal government had gotten its way in 1952, the Kenai River would have been dammed at the outlet of Kenai Lake.

Instead of the gently sloping gravel bars where anglers fish year-round, bears and eagles find plentiful meals amid the blue-green water and drift boats and river rafts begin their journeys, the headwaters of the river in Cooper Landing would be spanned by an earth-filled dam 100 feet high and 1,800 feet long.

That’s 556 feet longer than the Hoover Dam.

The mammoth project would have dramatically and purposefully transformed a large swath of the central Kenai Peninsula, from the headwaters of the Kenai east to Resurrection Bay.

Plans called for using the dam to cause the level of Kenai Lake to rise and back up into the Snow River delta, which would be dredged to bring the water level even closer to the divide where it drains south into Resurrection Bay. A tunnel nearly four miles long would pierce the bedrock of the natural divide from Kenai Lake to Bear Lake. Another half-mile tunnel would be bored from Bear Lake to Lost Creek to the east in order to lower the elevation of Bear Lake from 200 feet to at least 50. The whole project would mean the waters of Kenai Lake could be forced to drain south into Resurrection Bay, rather than west as it naturally does into the Kenai River and eventually Cook Inlet.

The purpose of all this?

Power. Lots of it.

The project would have included a power plant at the north end of Bear Lake expected to produce more than 140 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year by utilizing the 1 million acre-feet of water storage that would be created with the dam in Kenai Lake.

Homer Electric Association’s plans to investigate installing four low-impact hydroelectric projects in the Moose Pass area brings renewed interest to using water for power in the Cooper Landing area. HEA’s plans have some new twists — especially the low-impact approach — but the co-op is hardly the first to ponder the feasibility of hydroelectricity in the Kenai Mountains.

Crescent Lake has nearly been the host of a hydro project before. In 1955, the Seward Petticoat Gazette newspaper had a story about a hydroelectric project at Crescent Lake, “which will eventually make low cost electric energy available to the residents of the Seward and surrounding territory,” the story states. It goes on to talk about attempts to obtain necessary permits from the Bureau of Public Roads and the Forest Service. A contractor for the state of Alaska also studied the area for hydro in the 1980s.

The Kenai River dam idea was outlined in a January 1952 report called “Our rivers: Total use for greater wealth — Reconnaissance Report on the Potential Development of Water Resources in the Territory of Alaska,” which was presented to the 82nd Congress, first session, as House document 197. The U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, compiled it.
The stated purpose of the report was to investigate, “What of the water resources of Alaska? Have they any value? Should they be developed? These and a host of other questions have long needed answering.”

All regions of Alaska were reviewed in the report, and some were found to be more promising for hydroelectric projects than other. Southcentral, in particular, was deemed to be promising because it was thought that more power would result in more development.

“Cook Inlet area is the hub of Alaska, geographically, industrially, as a transportation center, and for accelerated development in agriculture and miscellaneous enterprises,” the report states. “The growth of this area is a healthy one, for it is not dependent on a single industry, nor on unstable resource development. Yet many of the resources are virtually untouched, a major one being the water resources. Agriculture, coal and metal mining, lumbering, fishing, and transportation have combined to serve as a nucleus for a stable economy. Lack of power and other water resource development has thus far prevented an even more impressive ‘chain reaction’ that would not only expand the existing developments, but would attract new manufacturing industries to the area.”

The Kenai River basin was seen as a likely candidate for hydroelectric projects because of ample lakes and glacial drainage streams, plus the Alaska Railroad and beginnings of the Seward and Sterling highways provided access to the area. But only one project — the biggie — was suggested as actually taking place.

“The basin offers numerous possibilities for small-power installations at relatively low construction cost. The only development considered is one using Kenai Lake for storage,” the report states.

A few other hydro sites on the peninsula were considered in the report. A proposed dam across Resurrection River about nine miles from the river’s mouth in Resurrection Bay at Seward would be 235 feet high and 2,000 feel long. That would create a reservoir with a 320,000 acre-feet capacity. A tunnel would carry water five miles downstream to a power plant that could generate more than 60 million kWh per year. The report questioned the feasibility of this project, however, due to geologic conditions.

Tustumena Lake is mentioned, but no projects were proposed, since it wasn’t seen as an area primed for development.

“The importance of the basin lies chiefly in its agricultural possibilities and the fact that much of it is underlain by coal-bearing sediments,” the report states.

Other than that, Cook Inlet itself got a nod of interest, but no specific recommendations:

“Cook Inlet has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world. Among the combination of factors that cause such large differences between high and low tides, at times exceeding 50 feet, are the configuration of the inlet and its bottom topography. This potentiality is worthy of future study.”

The report doesn’t include any study of what the ramifications of such large-scale hydro projects would be on fish, wildlife or any other aspect of ecology. But the report’s introduction does include a statement that seems to be at odds, to put it mildly, with the idea of plugging the Kenai.

“The fishing industry ranks first in importance in Alaska’s economy. This position can only be maintained if man-made destructive elements are minimized. The fish and wildlife service should be consulted to make certain that proposed structures for water resource development do not hinder the ‘run,’ of salmon.”

But the introduction also states that, “the construction of many of these dams is highly probable in view of future demands for power and water.”

Had it been built, the Kenai River as we know it today would cease to exist.

“It would have dewatered most of the upper river and we wouldn’t have any inputs until you got to Skilak Lake, really, except the Russian River input. Yeah, it’d be a pretty small stream,” said Robert Begich, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “It would have cut, boy, a lot of production. All species of salmon go across Kenai Lake and spawn in the tributaries … and in the lake itself.”

Rainbow and Dolly Varden trout also spawn up past the outlet of Kenai Lake. Salmon and trout spawning occurs elsewhere along the river, but cutting off Kenai Lake would have had a drastic impact.

“They would have survived, but the whole system wouldn’t have been as productive. It would be too big of a landscape change. There’d be fish, but not very many,” he said.

“Yeah, it would have been a big landscape change. A doozy, that’s for sure,” Begich said. “We’d all have less to do.”

The Kenai River dam never came to be, but it wasn’t for lack of consideration. Documents show the federal government was considering installing hydro on the Kenai decades before the 1952 Interior report. In an Alaska Archaeological Survey supplemental report, “Sterling Highway Archaeology” from 1985-1986, put out by the state of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, there’s mention of Frank Towle, the first resident in Cooper Landing to get a title to his homestead from the federal government, in 1932.

Prior to Towle, Cooper Landing homesteaders weren’t granted titles to the land because of a 1921 Federal Power Authority restriction limiting entry to federal lands within a quarter mile of the Kenai River and Kenai Lake, the report states. The power authority had a dam in mind that was expected to raise the lake level 6 feet. During the ’20s, no action was taken on a hydro project, so the Forest Service requested that the Federal Power Authority loosen restrictions on land in the area that wouldn’t be affected by the planned dam, which it did on May 10, 1934, according to the report.

The authority then began lifting restrictions on a case-by-case basis, “if individual homestead or homesite permit holders could demonstrate that their improvements to the land would not be adversely impacted by a 6-foot rise in the water level on Kenai Lake or the Kenai River,” the report states.

Had a dam been built and the lake level increased 6 feet, “We would have a better lake view,” joked Mona Painter, Cooper Landing historian and longtime resident.

Levity aside, the magnitude of what might have occurred is staggering to consider.

“It’s been interesting what they’ve planned over the years,” Painter said. “It’s a complete plan about how they were going to have the water go toward Seward and have hydroelectric power that way. Can you imagine? It would have just been huge. Where the bridge is now there would have been a big dam. It would have been huge.”

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