Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Low impact sparks high debate — Cooper Landing residents voice concern over hydro projects


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Impact. That one word spurred on four hours of contention in a meeting Jan. 21 between Cooper Landing residents and representatives from Homer Electric Association and its associates that want to build four hydroelectric projects in the Cooper Landing region.

HEA representatives say the projects will be designed to be low-impact, meaning care will be taken to prevent substantive harm to the environment, fish and recreation. And they would be beneficial to HEA consumers, who are struggling with electric bills that rise along with natural gas prices.

Cooper Landing residents, however, classify building roads, tunnels and dams, changing lake levels, disturbing vegetation, altering natural water flows and drying up sections of salmon-spawning creeks as high impacts, especially when residents don’t stand to directly gain anything from the projects.

Brad Zubeck, project engineer with HEA, gave an overview of the projects in the Jan. 21 meeting at Cooper Landing’s Community Hall and explained why the energy co-op is pursuing them. Kenai Hydro has preliminary, three-year permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency and a $50,000 grant for each project from the Alaska Energy Authority to study the feasibility of four hydro projects in the Trail Lakes area near Moose Pass — on Crescent Lake, Ptarmigan Lake, Falls Creek and Grant Lake.

Kenai Hydro was formed as a partnership between HEA and Wind Energy Alaska, which in turn is a partnership between Cook Inlet Region Inc. and enXco, a renewable energy firm. Kenai Hydro has contracted with HDR Alaska to do engineering and environmental study work for the projects, as well as Long View Associates to assist with the regulatory process.

Zubeck told the packed room of more than 50 attendees that HEA needs to find new sources of energy. Its current contract with Chugach Electric Association expires 2013, and HEA hopes to add 70 megawatts of new power generation at that point. As it stands now, about 90 percent of HEA’s power comes from natural gas-fired turbines. Rising gas prices have led HEA members’ rates to nearly double in the last year alone. Wind and hydro power plants, once built, would provide low-cost energy to stabilize rates and lessen dependency on natural gas, Zubeck said. The proposed hydro projects could supply 10 percent of HEA’s future needs, he said.

“The renewables will be one piece of that puzzle,” he said. “… The projects are not going to answer our challenge, but we think it’s a step in the right direction.”

Cooper Landing residents wanted to know why HEA is stepping in their direction at all, since power for Cooper Landing, Moose Pass and beyond is supplied by Chugach, so any rate decreases HEA members may see wouldn’t affect those living near the hydro projects.

Because that’s where the resource is, Zubeck said. The projects are promising, prior research has already been done on them and they’re close to transition lines, which helps make them affordable. The waterways are a state resource, which HEA is entitled to try and use, Zubeck said.

“We need to provide for ourselves. These are on the scale we can accomplish and meet the needs we have in the time frame we’re faced with,” Zubeck said.

“This is also a high-impact area for all the people who live here,” said Ken Green, of Cooper Landing.

Todd Bethard, an engineer with HDR Alaska, explained the project concepts as they stand so far (see related story). They entail a laundry list of elements that residents were skeptical of, if not adamantly opposed to, such as building roads, tunnels and dams, changing lake levels, altering natural creek flows and altogether drying up sections of streams that support spawning salmon.

“How do you have the audacity to tell me it’s low-impact when you’re talking about roads and tunnels? That’s major rape, pillage, plunder, slash and burn. Don’t try to tell me that’s low impact. You’ve got a lot of convincing to convince me of low impact,” said Phil Webber, of Cooper Landing.

Some projects drew more fire than others. A 1.5-mile long tunnel proposed for Ptarmigan Lake and creek, which supports productive fish habitat, generated several questions and comments about whether the 3 MW capacity the project is expected to generate is worth the construction costs and environmental upheaval the project would entail.

Zubeck conceded that he was skeptical the tunnel plan would proceed once HDR comes back with cost estimates.

“We’re looking at it. That’s all were doing now. That’s the stage we’re at,” he said. “…Honestly, I don’t think that Homer’s going to pursue this. We’re not trying to force this project, we’re just working with these concepts here.”

Crescent Lake was the other main sore spot with residents.

“You’re going to ruin some of the best fishing there is. I guarantee it. The best fishing is right under the outlet of Crescent Lake,” Webber said, about a plan to replace the footbridge across Crescent Creek at the outlet of the lake, in prime arctic grayling territory, with a concrete structure that would control water release into the creek and allow fish passage.

Zubeck assured the audience that they would protect grayling habitat and that HDR will conduct environmental studies on fish usage in Crescent and all the streams involved in the projects to determine what it needs to do to protect fish and wildlife in the areas.

“What they need, they’ll get. What they don’t need would go to power generation,” he said.

Audience members voiced skepticism that environmental studies would generate enough data to ensure the hydro projects wouldn’t inflict harm. Especially concerning were complex issues like whether water temperatures would increase after water is diverted through turbines, and what effect that may have on the ecosystem; and how disturbing natural water flows by drying up sections of creeks and eliminating natural flood events might impact everything from microorganisms and vegetation on up to fish.

“I have serious doubts that you’re going to be able to do that, and I don’t know. You’re going to have to convince me and everyone here that you can do that,” said John Thorne, of Cooper Landing.

“It’s not an easy job, I won’t kid you,” said Paul McLarnon, a biologist with HDR who is planning on conducting environmental research on the projects this summer.

Thorne wanted to know if there’s a predetermined amount of losses to fish and habitat that HEA and regulators would find acceptable.

“We don’t have a number,” McLarnon said. “We would provide that information to the regulatory agencies and work with them on that” — meaning FERC and the slate of state agencies that have a hand in approving permits will look at HDR’s research and engineering plans and determine if the likely effects and risks from the projects are acceptable, too great, or plausible with some plan modifications.

That being said, “It’s low-impact, it’s not no-impact. I’ve never worked on a project anywhere where there’s no impact,” McLarnon said.

Several audience members made it clear they opposed any impacts to the area, especially Crescent Lake.

“Right off the bat you’re going to get 10 percent (of HEA’s power needs) off these things, but the cost to the environment alone seems astronomical,” said John Belcik, of Cooper Landing. “For what you’re going to get off it, you’re looking at the most beautiful lake in the whole dag bern Alaska. We don’t need more people having access to it.”

Residents also voiced concerns about whether the regulatory and permit approval process was rigorous enough to adequately protect against environmental and recreational harms, especially since the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t review hydro projects to make sure they comply with the Clean Water Act, essentially leaving the decisions up to people in Washington, D.C.

But representatives from various state agencies in the audience pointed out that FERC and Alaska DEC aren’t the only organizations from which Kenai Hydro needs approval. The Forest Service, Fish and Game and various other agencies also have a hand in process.

Jim Ferguson, statewide hydro-power coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, issued a bleak outlook for one element of HDR’s current plans.

“We’ve never authorized the dewatering of a creek, and I seriously doubt we would do that now,” he said. “We’ll certainly look at it, but I think that’s highly unlikely.”

Toward the end of the meeting, residents speculated on where the process would go. Thorne said he thought HEA was serious about two projects — Grant Lake and Falls Creek — and only included Crescent and Ptarmigan lakes because the effects from those seem so much more controversial that people would be relieved to just have Grant and Ptarmigan, by comparison.

Bob Baldwin, chair of the Friends of Cooper Landing, which filed formal opposition with FERC to Kenai Hydro’s preliminary permits, said everyone has a legal voice in the process.

“We are assuming this will not happen. The consultants here are working to see it happen. We will be working on the other side of this. … We are very strongly committed that Crescent Lake will not happen,” he said, to a round of applause.

Webber was less optimistic that the regulatory process would safeguard environmental concerns.

“I may look stupid, but I’m not dumb. You guys have made up your mind. You’re going to gather enough data and press on,” he said, accusing that the environmental study results would be used to make the projects look favorable. “Give me two pages and I can convince God that the sun rises in the east.”

Another public meeting will be held at 7 p.m. today, Jan. 28, at the Moose Pass Community Hall.

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