Local News

Water quality trumps roadless issue at Blue Lake

SITKA, ALASKA
Sitka’s utility director, Chris Brewton, says the “stars are aligned” for raising the Blue Lake dam and adding a third turbine. The project has encountered little, if any, resistance, and so far has survived the tug-of-war over the state capital budget and emerged as a $28-million line item.

“We’ve got complete community support. We’ve got 90-percent bond approval rating for our bond issuance. We’ve got the Sitka Conservation Society and other folks supporting us. We’ve done that movie to support it. Everyone in the community and the resource agencies are on board with the project. So I think it was very easy for the USDA to approve that.”

Brewton says the proposed Takatz Lake hydro project, which is in the preliminary permitting stage with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – or FERC – has far more obstacles to overcome under the Roadless Rule. Blue Lake was minor by comparison.

“The Takatz Lake project brought this issue to the forefront. FERC notified us that you need to talk to the Forest Service and resolve this roadless issue relative to the Takatz Lake feasibility study. And Oh, by the way, we think there may be impacts on the Blue Lake project as well. Sure enough, there was, but we were able to get it resolved fairly easily.”

The Takatz Lake project – if it is ever built – is decades away, and the project has always been linked to a road across Baranof Island. Takatz has been added to the Forest Service’s “Roadless Sensitive” issues list and, like Blue Lake, will require the Secretary’s signature.

But Takatz remains so far out that the Forest Service has not even begun to vet the project. A far more immediate concern is what to do about the 5-million board feet of timber that will be flooded out when the Blue Lake dam is raised.

Mark Buggins, Sitka’s environmental superintendent, says the tentative decision is to leave the trees standing when the lake rises. This will introduce organic carbons into the water as the needles and other brush decompose, which in turn can react with chlorine in the disinfection system to produce potentially harmful byproducts.

That doesn’t sound too good. Neither does the other option: taking the trees and brush completely out, and increasing turbidity in the lake. Buggins says turbidity is by far the bigger problem, since it would require expensive filtration to remedy – filtration which Sitka has never had to do before, and could cost millions.

The increase in organic carbons, on the other hand, would be a temporary problem. Buggins also suspects that the lake’s size may prevent the concentration of chlorine byproducts from exceeding safety limits.

But flooding a lake of standing timber will have one other byproduct that has more to do with aesthetics than safety: a lot of dead trees. The Forest Service calls it a “ghost forest” and has entered its concerns over how access to the far end of Blue Lake for hunters and hikers may be impaired.

If Blue Lake were not also Sitka’s drinking water supply, ghost forests and turbidity would likely not loom as large for the project. Buggins says, “Water quality is the driving factor in what we do there.”

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