Feds, state and AEL&P chime in on Sweetheart Lake dam plan

Things are still sweet for Sweetheart Lake.

Federal, state and local agencies have thus far found only minor problems with a proposal to dam Sweetheart Creek southeast of Juneau for a 19.8 megawatt hydroelectric project.

In October, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses dam projects at the federal level, released a draft environmental impact statement on the project. Tuesday was the final day for agencies and the public to comment on that draft.

Duff Mitchell, director of Juneau Hydropower Inc., the private firm pushing the project, said none of the comments presented insurmountable obstacles for construction of the dam.

“I think there’s a lot of support for the project,” he said by phone on Wednesday.

The Sweetheart Lake Hydroelectric Project envisions an 111-foot-tall concrete dam at the natural outlet of Lower Sweetheart Lake, which would become a reservoir. A two-mile underground tunnel would convey water from the lake to a powerhouse near sea level at the mouth of Sweetheart Creek. Overland and undersea cables would connect the powerhouse to existing transmission lines that link Juneau and the Snettisham Hydroelectric Project.

Monte Miller, hydropower coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the biggest issue from Fish and Game’s standpoint is ensuring that Sweetheart Creek remains accessible to Juneauites who fish its waters for salmon each summer.

“We feel that we can work out the issues,” he said. “They are not contentious.”

Fish and Game is asking FERC to sign off on a requirement that the dam release pulses of high water to encourage salmon to migrate upstream. Those pulses would mimic natural surges in the creek level currently caused by rainfall. Without those pulses, the dam would release water at a constant flow. Some studies have indicated that constant flow retards salmon migration.

The U.S. Forest Service submitted a comment requesting that Juneau Hydropower hire an environmental compliance monitor to ensure that construction of the dam abides by state and federal laws. The Forest Service also asked JHI to draft 20 different plans dealing with aspects of the project from fire prevention to scenery management, storm water and pollution.

Carole Bookless, a Douglas resident, wrote FERC to say that she hopes JHI will be required to submit a surety bond in case the company doesn’t complete the dam.

“I would like assurances,” she wrote, “that if it is not completed … that any damage to the environment will be remediated back to the state it was before the project started, should the project be abandoned.”

The most significant comment was submitted by Alaska Electric Light and Power, which questioned the need for the dam. AEL&P stated that “there is simply no need for the project at this time” because Juneau’s existing hydroelectric plants already have surplus capacity.

Juneau Hydropower is basing its plan on the notion that electric demand in Juneau is increasing as drivers switch to electric cars and homeowners switch to electric heat. Currently, 78 percent of Juneauites heat their homes with oil, according to figures provided by Mitchell, and he expects the unstable cost of fuel to encourage more residents to seek alternatives.

By email, AEL&P spokeswoman Debbie Driscoll said predictions of rising demand haven’t come true. In 2013, Juneau’s electrical consumption rose 0.4 percent. In 2014, it dropped 1 percent, and this year AELP is forecasting another drop of 1 percent.

“AEL&P does not support construction of the project at this time, given that the community cannot utilize the electricity it will generate,” Driscoll wrote.

In a separate project, JHI is working with the owners of the Kensington Mine to link that facility to Juneau’s electrical grid. According to current estimates, Kensington would consume about half of the Sweetheart dam’s electrical production.

“Even if the Sweetheart Project is able to meet 100 (percent) of the load at the Kensington Mine, AEL&P’s firm customers would need to increase their consumption by at least 15-20 (percent) to utilize the full output of the plant,” Driscoll wrote, “and that would still cause a significant increase in rates.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, in its public comments, also said JHI’s projections of rising electrical demand “may no longer be valid given the current state fiscal situation, as well as the recent, dramatic decrease in fuel prices.”

Asked about those concerns, Mitchell said the Sweetheart dam is designed for the long term — 50 years or more — not the short term. He also asked why, if Juneau’s electrical supply is adequate, that AEL&P parent company Avista is pursuing the idea of bringing natural gas to the capital city.

By email, Driscoll said the intent of the natural gas project “is to provide a lower-cost alternative to heating oil for space heating in Juneau.”

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