By Jenny Neyman
Kenai Hydro is abandoning plans to build hydroelectric dams on two of the four streams it was permitted to explore in the Kenai Mountains near Moose Pass, and is moving forward with a combined project involving the other two streams.
The limited-liability company is a joint venture by Homer Electric Association and Wind Energy Alaska, which is co-owned by Cook Inlet Regional Corp. and enXco Inc. The hydro projects were granted preliminary permits in October 2008 and $50,000 grants from the Alaska Energy Authority to help offset the costs of preliminary permit work.
On Sept. 25, Kenai Hydro submitted petitions to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to voluntarily surrender its preliminary permits on Ptarmigan Lake and Crescent Lake, stating for each that, “Our reconnaissance level investigations determined the project to be unfeasible at this time.”
“The studies indicated that both projects faced environmental and economic challenges that would be too expensive to overcome,” stated a press release issued Monday.
A combined project involving the other two waterways, Falls Creek and Grant Lake, is still going ahead, with Kenai Hydro submitting a Notice of Intent and Pre-Application Document to FERC in August.
As originally envisioned, the 3-megawatt Ptarmigan Lake project involved damming the outlet of Ptarmigan Lake, but still allowing some water to be released into Ptarmigan Creek for fish usage, as it is a salmon-spawning stream. An intake structure at the outlet of the lake would have brought water through a 9-foot-diamater tunnel just shy of 1.5 miles to a powerhouse. A half-mile road would be built across from Ptarmigan Campground to access the powerhouse, along with a two-mile, single-lane road from the powerhouse to the lake outlet. By the time Kenai Hydro submitted its six-month progress report on the project to FERC at the end of March, it had already decided the project was unfeasible.
Crescent Lake, a particularly popular hiking and fishing area, was originally pegged for a 5.8-megawatt facility. The plan was to dam Crescent Lake where the footbridge is now, still allowing some water release into Crescent Creek. On the other end of the lake, a 7,750-foot tunnel or deep trench would be dug to install a 13,000-foot steel penstock that would take water from the east end of the lake past Carter Lake and down the mountainside to a powerhouse at 550-feet elevation. The trench would traverse the valley between Carter and Crescent lakes along roughly the same route as the hiking trail. A new, 2.5-mile road would be built up past Carter Lake to access the intake structure on Crescent.
Though there has been opposition from Moose Pass and Cooper Landing residents against all the dams, opponents found the Crescent project to be particularly loathsome, in part because the area is so prized for its recreational uses.
“Crescent Lake and that Crescent Lake bowl is essentially a de facto park. That’s the way the public treats it. To lead off with that one is shooting themselves in the foot,” said Bob Baldwin, president of the Friends of Cooper Landing community group, which had opposed the Kenai Hydro projects from the start.
The summer economies of Moose Pass and Cooper Landing are heavily dependent on fishing and recreational uses of the area. Baldwin said FOCL members and other area residents opposed to the projects worry that damming fish-spawning streams that lead to the headwaters of the Kenai River, punching roads into the wilderness, adding transmission lines and power plants, and other elements of the projects will harm the Kenai’s fishery, mar the natural landscape and, in turn, hurt the area’s tourism draw.
“The economic importance for a place like this, the economy is entirely based on outdoor recreation and tourism. The natural features of the area are vital to support that. We’ve got hiking, skiing, mountain biking, horse riding, birding. Anybody that’s interested in the natural surroundings is possibly going to be turned away because these people decided they’d like to go with this type of industrial setting,” Baldwin said.
“I’ve been involved with Cooper Landing issues for a long time now, dozens of public issues, and I’ve never been involved with one that is so unanimously supported in Cooper Landing,” Baldwin said. “Usually, people are on different sides of things, but FOCL is obligated to support the majority community position. And this one, to the best of my knowledge, is a unanimous position.”
Initially, Baldwin speculated that Kenai Hydro would proceed with Grant Lake first, since it has drawn the least controversy and is a little more removed from the public eye than the other projects. He said his fear was that the gains Kenai Hydro may make in getting Grant Lake permitted — if FERC OKs the use of a dam and dewatering part of a stream, for instance — could then be applied to other projects.
“Any concession they get — for instance, totally diverting Falls Creek so it no longer exists below the point of diversion — they’re absolutely going to apply anything achieved there as the precedent for the other proposals, so it is very much a slippery slope,” Baldwin said.
“Treating them one or two at a time is an incremental kind of treatment that serves to skewer cumulative impacts. The true scope of the intent, the public doesn’t get a sense of that treating them one at a time. It also greatly increases the public effort required to deal with these.”
Now that Kenai Hydro has asked to relinquish its permits for Crescent and Ptarmigan, just the Grant Lake-Falls Creek hydro project remains.
The project, as currently envisioned, calls for constructing a 10-foot-high, 120-foot-long concrete dam across the outlet of Grant Lake, with a spillway section on the center 60 feet of the dam. Grant Lake is about 1.5 miles southeast of Moose Pass, at an elevation of about 696 feet from mean sea level. Grant Creek flows out of Grant Lake and into the stream connecting Upper and Lower Trail Lakes along the Seward Highway. The Trail Lakes empty into Kenai Lake, which feeds the Kenai River.
An outlet will be built on the north abutment of the dam, allowing the lake to be drained to aid construction. Once the project is operational, the outlet could be used to release water to maintain in-stream flow in the section of Grant Creek below the dam and above the powerhouse water outlet, but Kenai Hydro hasn’t yet decided whether it will do that, or whether that section of the creek will be left dry.
“The potential need for in-stream flow in this reach of Grant Creek will be examined during licensing,” the Pre-Application Document states.
A water intake structure will be built near the dam about 120 feet offshore. A freestanding concrete tower with a base of 20 by 20 feet will hold a gate, gate hoist and controls, and be connected to shore by a narrow access bridge. A 200-foot-long, 8-foot-diamater steel pipe will connect the intake to a 2,800-foot-long, 10-foot-diamater, horseshoe-shaped tunnel that will carry water to the powerhouse. From there, a 650-foot-long, 66-inch-diamater steel penstock will take the water to the powerhouse, although Kenai Hydro plans more engineering work to decide if it will build a surge tank at the beginning of the penstock. If so, the tank could be as big as 110 feet high with an 8-foot diameter.
The powerhouse will be a 45-by-60-foot, 30-foot-tall, metal building on a concrete foundation on the south shore of Grant Creek near the end of a canyon section of the creek. Two Francis turbines are expected to generate a combined 4.5 megawatts.
At the outlet of the powerhouse will be an open channel about 200 feet long to carry water back to Grant Creek at elevation 508 feet from mean sea level.
A switchyard will be built at the powerhouse and where the overhead transmission line from the powerhouse will connect with the existing transmission line along the Seward Highway, about 4,100 feet to the west.
“The tailrace would be located in order to minimize impacts to fish habitat by returning flows to Grant Creek upstream of the most productive fish habitat,” according to the Pre-Application Document.
Falls Creek may be diverted to increase the capacity of the Grant Lake project. A 50-foot concrete dam would be built across Falls Creek, with an intake structure on the right bank of the creek about 1.4 miles from the creek mouth. Water could still be released into the creek, but as with Grant Creek, Kenai Hydro hasn’t yet decided if that will be the case.
“If studies support the need for maintaining in-stream flows downstream of the diversion, water can be allowed to spill over the spillway by reducing flows through the pipeline,” the PAD states.
A 13,000-foot-long, 42-inch-diamater, steel, above-ground penstock will take water to Grant Lake, releasing it through an energy-dissipating channel built to start at the lake’s new, higher elevation that will result from this project. Grant Lake’s water level is expected to fluctuate from 9 feet above to 25 feet below its natural level.
Construction, starting with access roads, is expected to begin in April — if and when the project is approved — and take between 30 and 36 months. Typical operation of the project is expected to consist of capturing high snowmelt runoff in the spring and summer and operate continuously at peak capacity in the summer, with 150 cubic square feet of water being diverted from Falls Creek from May to October. Grant Lake should start the winter at full storage capacity of 706-foot elevation, and be drawn down to 675-foot elevation, or lower, “dependent on water inflow and operational scenarios,” according to the Pre-Application Document.
Grant Lake is cut off from anadromous fish use by a canyon section and series of steep falls in Grant Creek. It’s this area that Kenai Hydro plans to dewater in its dam project. According to the Pre-Application Document, the only resident fish population in Grant Lake is sculpin. Grant Creek, however, supports both anadromous and resident fish populations, including spawning king, sockeye and coho salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. Round whitefish and Arctic grayling have also been documented in the creek.
The lower quarter mile of Falls Creek has been found to support juvenile king salmon, Dolly Varden and sculpin.
Kenai Hydro pulled from previous research on aquatic species usage of the Falls and Grant waterways, and is conducting further surveys of fish populations and habitat to expand this knowledge.
“The purpose of the studies is to evaluate resident and anadromous fish species composition, distribution and abundance and to survey fish habitat resources and assess quality and quantity of key habitat parameters,” according to the Pre-Application Document. “… Alteration of streamflow and temperature regime (depending on the depth of water withdrawal in Grant Lake) in Grant Creek as the result of potential Project operation could affect spawning and rearing habitat for anadromous fish species and habitat for all lifestages of resident fish species, depending on the timing and magnitude of flow alteration.”
Representatives of Kenai Hydro and HDR, the consulting firm conducting the field work, have said the purpose of the studies and engineering work is to make sure negative impacts to fish and fish habitat don’t happen. In its Notice of Intent transmittal letter to FERC, filed with its Pre-Application Document, Kenai Hydro states that it doesn’t expect the Grant Lake-Falls Creek study projects to be overly controversial.
“While (Kenai Hydro) understands that there is significant public interest in the Project and that there are some parties who do not support hydroelectric power development in the area overall, consultation to date has not indicated that the study program or impact assessment itself will be controversial or overly complex.”
Baldwin said he expects FOCL and other opponents to the hydro projects to keep up their vigilance and continue voicing their views to FERC and the public.
“In spite of the Kenai Hydro spin on this, they are not low-impact. Each one is a high-impact site that has very low hydroelectric potential,” Baldwin said. “Dams, diversions, roads are involved, transmission lines are involved, a powerhouse is involved. Putting new roads into these areas opens these areas up to public access that’s not possible to control. It’s not possible to police these things, so you’re going to have four-wheelers, off-road vehicles all over this country that’s now relatively pristine,” Baldwin said.
“I’d say that Kenai Hydro, Homer Electric and CIRI are playing with fire potentially degrading the headwaters of the Kenai River and affecting the whole region’s well-being and the region’s economy. We view it as a public scandal. It just hasn’t been very well-reported to date, but it’s out of control and we’re encouraging greater public involvement.”