November 24, 2011 |

Assembly to revisit Connelly Lake issue

The Haines Borough Assembly will hold a special meeting 6 p.m. Tuesday to formulate comment on a preliminary permit sought by Alaska Power & Telephone. It would give the utility exclusive rights to develop a hydroelectric power plant and rock-fill dam about four miles upstream of Chilkoot Lake.

The privately-owned utility that provides phone and electric service to Haines and Skagway has characterized the Connelly Lake project as its most practical means of increasing power to the community and eliminating occasional wintertime reliance on diesel generation.

Others, including environmentalists and some local Natives, say the project is too big of a risk to the Chilkoot Lake watershed, an engine of salmon production worth millions of dollars annually to local fishing and tourism industries.

Some have proposed as an alternative Schubee Lake, a potential source along Taiya Inlet near Skagway that AP&T says would produce less power and cost more to develop.

The comment deadline to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is Jan. 3. "We have time to do this in a considered fashion, (but) I don’t think anyone is looking forward to it," borough Mayor Stephanie Scott said of the upcoming meeting.

The utility proposes $1.3 million in studies and design work toward the project that has an estimated total pricetag of about $30 million. AP&T has received $468,000 in state grants for engineering and environmental studies it outlined in its July application. It’s seeking an additional $715,000 from the Alaska Energy Authority, a state agency.

A license to build the project is a separate permit that would come later, AP&T power manager Danny Gonce said this week.

The assembly last weighed in on the issue in 2009, with a resolution that endorsed "the concept of creating new hydro-electric capacity in the region."

Lynn Canal Conservation spokeswoman Nancy Berland said her group was "strongly opposed" to the project, which she described as 50 percent increase in electrical capacity by the utility to cover a 5 percent gap now filled by diesel generation.

"Chilkoot is a food basket for our community. We have documentation by Fish and Game on the sensitivity of salmon to disturbance and possible repercussions of the project to fisheries resources." She noted AP&T’s stated interest in selling supplemental power to cruise ships in Skagway.

"It doesn’t make sense for Haines to risk its tourism and fish industries to provide power for Skagway," she said. Options such as wind power or increased conservation might eliminate the need for diesel, she said.

She said salmon have reclaimed some sections of an old roadbed north of Chilkoot Lake, which now are under water.

The Haines Alaska Native Sisterhood and the Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation also are on record opposing Connelly.

Conservative blogger Roger Maynard said he and the Alliance for Commerce, a group of conservative businessmen, consider Connelly Lake a "common sense project" and the "borough would be remiss to do anything but support it."

He scoffed at the notion that a smaller project located away from fish streams might be more appropriate.

"It’s too easy to tell a private company how to work and what to do, but they know what they need, not some person sitting back at an assembly meeting," Maynard said.

Borough leaders should encourage AP&T to pursue a hydro-electric source – including wording for an environmentally sound and sustainable power source – and leave it at that, he said.

Maynard called concerns about fisheries a "non-argument," saying it’s a mistake to assume the project’s going to hurt fish. He said AP&T has a strong environmental record. Work to date includes ferrying scientists in to gather information about fish resources there.

The borough, in seeking new facilities like a recreation center, will need inexpensive power, he said. "The first thing you need is cheap, environmentally sound power to power those things and the answer is hydro-power, so it’s a no-brainer to me."

In comments submitted in 2009, Fish and Game cited potential sedimentation from resurrecting 14 miles of road around the lake and building one new mile.

"It will be a major undertaking not only to rebuild this road but to maintain it, since it crosses many flash-flood-prone creeks and tributaries that support anadramous fish activity, including high-value sockeye spawning beds," the agency wrote. "Any activity that could impact the turbidity of the lake could impact the survival of juvenile sockeye salmon."

Since 2008, the Takshanuk Watershed Council has found sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon and Dolly Varden char in streams above Chilkoot Lake.

More information is available on the borough’s website.