Home Arts & Entertainment Eklutna, Ecowarrior Hell, and “DamNation:” A Tale of Two Cities

Eklutna, Ecowarrior Hell, and “DamNation:” A Tale of Two Cities

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On Thursday night, Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage showed a documentary that takes aim at “deadbeat dams.”  The film, titled DamNation, won the SXSW Film 2014 Audience Award in March.  It was produced by the Patagonia clothing company.

Deadbeat dams are dams that are obsolete.  They no longer contribute sufficiently, either through water or power generation, to warrant restoration, retention, or replacement.

Mike Wood of Susitna River Coalition introduced the film to a full theater. The Coalition also had a table in the foyer, along with Trout Unlimited of Southcentral Alaska. Wood said his organization was a nonprofit committed to stopping construction of a dam on the Susitna River.

The Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard holds a substantial portion of Vegas' 150,593 hotel rooms.
The Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard holds a substantial portion of Vegas’ 150,593 hotel rooms.

I recently spent an ironic Earth Day in Las Vegas.  Like many Alaskans, I love visiting Vegas.  It can add a helpful shot of vitamin D during the long, dark winter.  But Vegas is a guilty pleasure.  The pleasure comes from excess, the ready availability of everything from alcohol to luxury goods to entertainment.  My personal vice is the buffet.  The guilt, of course, also derives from that same excess, which could not exist but for a dam.

Las Vegas is an impossible city.  It is extremely arid, averaging just over four inches of rain per year and located about 120 miles from Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth.  Yet the Greater Las Vegas Metro area has had a population around two million since 2007.  The water to sustain it, and the almost 40 million annual visitors to Las Vegas, comes from the Colorado River.

To be clear, Hoover is not a deadbeat dam.  To the contrary, it and the Colorado River are extraordinarily overextended.  “Hoover provides 90 percent of Las Vegas’s running water, turning a desert outpost into the fastest-growing metropolis in the country,” writes Jacques Leslie in the prologue to Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment.  Fastest-growing, indeed.  The population of Greater Las Vegas nearly doubled in the Nineties.  Growth of hotel capacity was commensurate with the overall population.  The sprawling suburb of North Las Vegas alone grew 150 percent during that same time frame, then nearly doubled again from 2000 to 2010.  And all those people, residents and visitors alike, use water.

The Colorado River Compact is an agreement signed between seven western states in 1922 divvying up the flow of the Colorado.  It splits the areas of the states into two basins, the Upper and Lower, allocating 7.5 million acre-feet of water to each.  (An acre-foot of water is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre of land under one foot of water, roughly 325,000 gallons.1)  A 1964 court ruling gave Nevada (including Las Vegas) 300,000 acre-feet of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 million.  But the original data upon which the Colorado River Compact was based were inflated by higher than average precipitation in the 1910s and early 1920s.  The actual flow of the Colorado is closer to 13 million acre-feet annually, 2 million acre-feet less than the contractual distribution in the compact. States were already overusing the Colorado before the ink was dry.  Mexico, with whom the United States signed a treaty guaranteeing 1.5 million acre-feet to the river delta country, always gets the short end of the stick.  The Colorado often does not even reach its terminus, the Gulf of California.

Perhaps the single greatest example of water waste in Las Vegas, the Bellagio fountains shoot the Colorado River into the sky every 15 minutes, during some of the hottest hours of the day.

More water evaporates from Lake Mead every year than is allocated from the Colorado to the entire state of Nevada.  Facts like this are hard to grasp as one flies into or out of Las Vegas.  There are an awful lot of green lawns, swimming pools, and trees down there, all artificially placed and gulping up huge quantities of the Colorado River.  There is an invisible and largely ignored tension between residents trying to be responsible by replacing grass with xeriscapes and gargantuan resort casinos trying to uphold the illusion of an oasis in the desert.  Many hotels and restaurants are trying to do small things to lessen their environmental impact, like giving food waste to local pig farms or not pouring water for diners unless it is requested.  However, their guests do not have a personal investment in the community.  Rather than thinking about taking shorter showers, many are consumed with the idea of “maximizing the value” of their stay.  And why not, when they are so obviously surrounded by plenty? Thus a feedback loop persists.

Is there a hydroelectric positive generated by Hoover Dam?  Hydroelectricity, created using the power of falling water, is often perceived as “clean” energy.  Unfortunately, it takes a lot of water to generate modest amounts of electricity.  According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the wing of the Department of the Interior responsible for the construction of the dam, Hoover generates “about 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year… enough to serve 1.3 million people.”  The state of Nevada only gets 23 percent of that, barely enough to sustain the resident population of Henderson, let alone the flashing lights of The Strip.

In order for Hoover to generate what it does, Lake Mead has to be full.  The deep, clear water of Lake Mead is a stark contrast with the shallow, silty water of the natural Colorado.  As the Colorado hits Hoover Dam, it is driven down by the dam’s design, cooling in the depths.

The result of the Colorado dam system is water too cold for most native fish species which face extinction.  Hence, the Grand Canyon is full of non-native cold water trout. And silt impounded by the controversial Glen Canyon dam — well on its way to becoming a deadbeat — is not allowed to flow into the Grand, eliminating many of the sandbars that would otherwise sustain plants and wildlife.

Despite being in a prime location for solar power development, the overwhelming majority of the electricity in Las Vegas comes from natural gas and coal.  Electrical plants, depending on the level of sophistication, try to match energy demand- highest before most people go to work and after people return from work- with supply.  In Las Vegas, there is little change in demand throughout the day because of the resort casinos.  Those casinos, which generated almost $10 billion in revenue last year, will not tolerate brown- or blackouts.  So coal and natural gas are burned fairly consistently.  Any energy not used is grounded, and the resource is wasted.  (Ironically, one of the prime movers of the Hoover Dam was the feeling that the Colorado River was being wasted by reaching the sea.)  Add to this energy expenditure the 96 percent of visitors who travel to Vegas via something other than bus or train and you get a city with one of the highest carbon footprints in the country.

When one does the simple dam mathematics, it becomes clear that Las Vegas simply does not make any sense.  Yet it continues to grow, albeit more slowly.  Hoover Dam enabled an artificial economy based almost exclusively on the service industries.  The vulnerability of that economy was revealed starting in 2007.

Because it was artificially inflated, the housing bubble impacted Las Vegas earlier than much of the country.  Hotel occupancy and gaming revenue peaked as the number of foreclosures started to grow.  2008 saw the first decrease in residency.  Things got worse as the recession deepened.  The only area of Clark County that saw growth in 2011 was suburban North Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, Las Vegas added 8,000 hotel rooms in both 2008 and 2009, in large part due to the construction of the City Center megacomplex.

Anchorage is much more economically stable than Las Vegas, but it also depends on a dam.

Las Vegas was justifiably proud of its 2005 ranking in a Brookings Institute study of metropolitan carbon footprints.  Unfortunately, a lot of things have changed in the last nine years.  Along with exponential growth has come serious economic hardship.  Those moving to Las Vegas could only afford the suburban areas, and those staying had to move farther away from the city, increasing commute times and carbon emissions.  Transportation is the main driver of Las Vegas’ recently increased footprint.

However, there is good news for Las Vegas.  In the early days of the recession, there was a decline in the city’s volume of emissions.  And therein lies the answer; for Las Vegas to survive the next bubble bursting — for it to survive at all — it must shrink.  But as long as Hoover Dam stands and casino moguls can create the illusion of a Land of Plenty while still turning substantial profits, that is unlikely to happen.

The situation in Anchorage is much different. The Municipality of Anchorage has a much more diverse economy than Las Vegas.  Anchorage home prices were much more realistic as the bubble grew.  This helped lessen the impact of the Great Recession.  Anchorage also has a smaller carbon footprint.  But it, too, is dependent on a dam.

Eklutna Lake, located between Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley, provides Anchorage with almost 80 percent of its water, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The lake is primarily fed by meltwater from Eklutna Glacier and snow on the surrounding Chugach Mountains.  As Rick Sinnott, former wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, reported extensively last year in the Alaska Dispatch, 15 percent of the lake’s capacity is used for public water supply.  The remainder generates hydropower.

Hydropower was vital to the residents of Anchorage when the first Eklutna dams were built in the 1920s.  An upper dam was constructed along the natural lake outlet in concert with a diversion dam much farther down the valley.

In the wake of its success with Hoover Dam, the Bureau of Reclamation went on a dam building spree.   Anchorage then developed an obscure connection to Las Vegas.  L. F. “Lem” Wylie, who had done survey work for Hoover Dam, oversaw what was called the Eklutna Project from 1952 to 1955.3  As part of that project, the Bureau blasted a 4.5-mile tunnel under the mountains that led to a government-owned powerhouse.  Today, while 85 percent of Eklutna Lake is used for electricity, it only supplies Anchorage with about three percent of its total energy use, including fifteen percent of its electricity.  Like Las Vegas, the primary energy sources for Anchorage are natural gas and coal.

15 percent of Eklutna Lake supplies Anchorage with water. The rest is used for hydropower.

The Eklutna Project did not make a long-term difference in Anchorage’s power needs, but it did create Anchorage’s very own deadbeat dam.  When Eklutna was completed, the lower 1929 diversion dam became obsolete.  With all of Eklutna Lake spoken for, almost no water passes between Eklutna Lake and the lower deadbeat dam.  Sinnott provides evidence that the two dams have destroyed Dolly Varden habitat and salmon runs, replaced with non-native rainbow trout.

Four species of salmon are found in the lower Eklutna River in limited quantities.  Key to restoring the salmon runs is removal of the useless dam, but there are problems to consider before that is done.  The dam has substantial amounts of sediment built up behind it that could clog the river if released.  Also, since almost no water currently passes out of the lake, the flow in the lower river would probably be insufficient.  Given that so much of the lake is allocated for power generation, and that, like Las Vegas, the resultant kilowatts are so meager, it would make sense to release a portion of that allocation and put in a fish ladder to the lake, as Sinnott suggests.

There is yet another dam-related problem for Anchorage.  Just as Las Vegas is closely watching long-term drought in the Southwest, Anchorage is monitoring the swift retreat of Eklutna Glacier.  At least, it should be.  Again, as reported by Rick Sinnott, Eklutna Glacier lost 23 percent of its volume between 1957 and 2009, enough water to fill the lake 2.4 times.  Dr. Michael Loso, an APU Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, presented some of his data at an Anchorage Science Pub presentation in December. Unlike in Las Vegas, where water issues have been setting off alarms for decades, Loso suggests that Anchorage merely pay close attention to the status of Eklutna Glacier. Long-term, the cost of water could increase and limits on usage could be put in place similar to the warmer parts of the Lower 48.

The Bureau of Reclamation largely ceased building megadams in the 1960s.  Just like in Las Vegas, the math didn’t add up.  But while Anchorage is figuring out how to get rid of one of its dams, the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project has again reared its ugly head.

Susitna-Watana is a big deal, big enough to earn a concluding note of concern in the film DamNation. It’s mention elicited booing from the crowd Thursday night. Susitna-Watana would be the second tallest dam in the country if constructed, and at a cost of over $5 billion, it would be unlikely to reduce energy costs for Alaskans.  More likely, the project would distract from the very real opportunities available in geothermal and tidal power.  Further, the dam would jeopardize huge salmon runs and impact caribou migration.  Fortunately, state funding for Susitna-Watana has been drastically reduced in a climate of budget deficits, multiple megaprojects, and lack of political will.  The next few years will be critical toward seeing the threat of Susitna-Watana slip away for a third time.

DamNation documented a country that is moving away from expensive and environmentally damaging projects.  Alaska, and Anchorage, need to be extremely careful that they do not take a giant step backward while the rest of the country moves forward.

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