Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Passable reception — Most Moose Pass residents take wait-and-see approach to Kenai Hydro’s plans

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

The players:
Homer Electric Association has partnered with Wind Energy Alaska to form Kenai Hydro. Wind Energy Alaska is a partnership between Cook Inlet Region Inc. and enXco, a renewable energy firm. Kenai Hydro has brought in consultants HDR Alaska to help with engineering and environmental research, and Long View Associates to assist with the permitting process.

The projects:
  • Crescent Lake would involve restricted water flow to the west into Crescent Creek, and a 13,000-foot pipe would take water east out of the lake past Carter Lake to a power station down the mountain.
  • Grant Lake would be dammed, with the lake level rising up to nine feet and draining as much as 25 feet. A pipe would carry water to a powerhouse, then return it to the creek above anadromous fish habitat.
  • Falls Creek water would be diverted through a pipe to Grant Lake to increase water storage and power output there, or else it would go down to a separate powerhouse and be returned to the creek.
  • Ptarmigan Lake water would be diverted through a 1.5-mile-long tunnel to a powerhouse before being returned to the creek above anadromous fish habitat.

As Kenai Hydro develops plans to build hydro projects on Crescent Lake, Grant Lake, Falls Creek and Ptarmigan Lake, residents of Moose Pass are left to wrestle with the concept of NIMBY — not in my backyard.

The projects would capitalize on the watershed in the Moose Pass area, generating around 5 megawatts each of renewable energy that would help somewhat lessen Homer Electric Association’s current dependence on natural gas. The concept of whether or not hydro is a good idea hasn’t been the issue, it’s whether or not hydro should happen the way Kenai Hydro is proposing, where it’s proposing — in a vast tract of mountainous wilderness that is literally out Moose Pass’ back door.

At a meeting Jan. 28 in Moose Pass, representatives of Kenai Hydro and its consultants shared their plans so far, answered questions and listened to concerns about the projects from 40 to 50 residents.

At a similar meeting the week before in Cooper Landing, the presentation was met with a negative response, with several people voicing strong opposition to the projects. Moose Pass residents were more accepting, said Joe Gallagher, HEA spokesperson.

“The tone was more receptive to the idea of the hydro projects,” he said. “I would say that the majority of the people there would support moving forward with the studies.

“They asked similar questions that residents in Cooper Landing did. They wanted to know about fish habitat, they wanted to know about visual impacts. People were interested about what types of roads might be necessary. They were very similar, but it seemed as though the responses we were able to provide seemed to resonate a little bit better with the people in Moose Pass.”

People at the meeting seemed to be willing to listen to what HEA had to say, and vice versa, said Jeff Hetrick, a Moose Pass resident who’s worked in fisheries for 20 years, including running the Trail Lakes hatchery at one time.

“I think they started the process the very right way — go to public and explain it to them, answer questions and keep on answering them. I think they did a professional job and ran a great meeting, and I’ve been to a lot of them, and they should be commended,” Hetrick said. “It was a good first step. I think they covered everything they needed to cover, the basics of everything, and gave enough information for people to chew on.”

Hetrick said people had a knee-jerk reaction to the projects when they first saw Kenai Hydro’s proposal, but he’s willing to wait and watch the study process continue to see if his concerns are addressed, he said.

“When you dewater a system, even with the best of intentions, you have some things that would be extremely hard to replace,” Hetrick said. “The best you could hope for it is to do no damage, which would be pretty tough. That would be jumping to conclusions. But they seemed very attuned or acute to fishery issues, a lot more so than I think you’d expect.”

But he does think the lack of direct benefit to Moose Pass residents — since they are Chugach Electric customers and wouldn’t see the rate decreases HEA members might get from the hydro projects — may impact local support for hydro.

“The human element arises with what’s in it for me? It’s probably going to be the toughest sell because local people aren’t going to benefit, other than contributing to a green world,” Hetrick said.

For him, that alone is reason enough to consider the projects.

“I don’t have any reaction yet. We all support alternative energy, so it’s time to put up or shut up,” he said.

Bruce Jaffa, who’s lived in Moose Pass and Cooper Landing for the past 35 years and has done construction work on other hydro projects in the state, including the Bradley Lake dam in Kachemak Bay, discredits the argument that the proposed area is “pristine” wilderness and should be left that way. Back before even he came to the area there were mining developments on the creeks, he said.

“We all rail about altering some of this stuff, and in fact it’s already been altered before,” he said.

Jaffa said he values the environment around him, but doesn’t think he, or anyone else, has the right to block what could be beneficial development simply because it’s near where they live.

“In America there’s this selfish — I’m going to call it selfish — NIMBY attitude that’s a result of the ’80s and ’90s, the ‘me first’ generation. The projects that would benefit us, that would benefit us as a civilization, we’re going to endorse those as long as they’re not done around me — that’s a cop-out,” Jaffa said. “Frankly, to move forward with a project like this one, you need to have an altruistic attitude because the benefits are not ones that you’re going to see immediately.”

But he does see the possibility of Kenai Hydro projects indirectly benefiting Moose Pass residents. He said having power generation in the area would lessen line loss, the amount of electricity that’s dissipated due to friction as electrons travel over long distances through transmission lines.

“Most clients pay for the power that is shipped, not the power that is received. … Having a power source here, they fill the line and reduce line loss. That’s a fairly philosophic issue, and I don’t know what the dollar number is, but it’s a real number,” Jaffa said.

Having HEA crews in the area could also benefit residents, for instance if an avalanche knocks out power, or they may help with water utility work. HEA may also contribute to the school or community, he said.

“I think that we will get a significant benefit from them, and I think that’s something that Homer Electric needs to present. They need to develop how this will benefit not just their ratepayers, but other residents of Kenai Peninsula, residents of Moose Pass and users of Railbelt energy grid,” he said.

Then there’s the benefit in a larger sense, of renewable energy, he said.

“For us to have a need in our society for green power or alternative energy instead of carbon-based fuel, I think we all agree on that,” he said. “So where are we going to do it? You have to do it in the available location.”

That being said, Jaffa doesn’t want fish habitat to be harmed, unnecessary roads to be punched through the wilderness or the visual beauty of the area to be compromised, he said. He thinks the projects can be done without those harms, and that the regulatory process will protect against them, he said.

“I think there are ways to do that. Construction would be short-lived and the design is such that it’s not tremendously harmful. If it doesn’t leave a lasting scar of some sort, the pluses outweigh the negatives,” Jaffa said.

Marion Glaser disagrees. She and her sister, Jolie, grew up in Moose Pass, and came back after college to live there. She said the area has value in its untouched state, for fish habitat and recreational uses, and doesn’t think the small hydro projects are beneficial enough to be worth the risks to the environment.

“I’m definitely not supportive. I do have concerns. I feel like people not only from the Seward and Moose Pass area, but the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, Lower 48 and the world come to this beautiful place. A lot of people come here to fish and hike, and the proposed hydroelectric dams would affect pristine wilderness areas that are just adjacent to hiking and fishing streams,” she said.

Glaser supports hydro, she said, just not ones that would affect streams that support fish and in areas that support wildlife and recreation.

“I’m very for green energy. I think it’s an important thing to strive for in this day and age, but I think that we need to preserve this place for our children, and I think that its highest value is its value as a beautiful, pristine place for recreation and for people to have access to rivers and lakes in the outdoors. I think that it would be wiser to do a hydro project in a place that there would be less impact to,” she said.

She’s particularly concerned about the effects changing hydrology would have on fish streams.

“I think that these streams have a certain carrying capacity of fish and insects and birds and rare and sensitive species of plants that have adapted to fit the natural hydrology of the area. Even if you take a third of the water out of these steams, the population of salmon, trout, wildflowers and insects will be affected,” Glaser said. “I know the costs would be a little higher to do it a little farther away from a well-populated area (with existing transmission lines). But I think that’s what should be done.”

Gallagher, with HEA, said those are all the types of comments Kenai Hydro wants to hear — support as well as people’s concerns.

“That was the point of this first round of meetings: What did we miss? What are the concerns? And we hear them and those are all definitely the key reasons why those meetings are held,” he said.

He said people’s responses to the projects could influence how they’re developed, but couldn’t say yet if opposition like the kind received in Cooper Landing would impact the projects, as HDR is still in its planning phase. He said he expects HDR to release its recommendations on which projects to pursue, and how to pursue them, within a month.

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