Utility Director Chris Brewton says lake levels are improving, and the city’s traffic light icon that tells the public how much electricity to use, has been moved from a power status of red to yellow.
The city’s diesel generator burns 900 gallons of the fuel every hour. A slight fuel surcharge could appear on bills.
The demand for electricity in Sitka has in recent months come close to exceeding the supply, from hydropower, anyway. In the short-term, that means more diesel power generation could become necessary.
In the longterm, it lends a sense of urgency to the city’s plans to raise the Blue Lake dam and add hydro-power capacity.
When the city raises the dam, more than 300 acres of the Tongass National Forest will be flooded. The federal regulatory process requires the city to offer up some compensation to the Forest Service for the land that will be lost. But the Sitka Assembly had some serious concerns – and some sharp words – about how that compensation will be issued.
Utility Director Christopher Brewton asked the Assembly for the power to negotiate a deal with the Forest Service on the city’s behalf. And he presented a list of things the Forest Service and other community groups would be interested in discussing as compensation.
That list included the donation of acreage the city owns within the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness in place of the acreage the city intends to flood around Blue Lake. The list also includes various projects in the area for recreational users. Assembly member Thor Christianson had this exchange with Brewton:
CHRISTIANSON: So if I understand this correctly, we’re being blackmailed by the Forest Service to provide these things? We’re being told that if you don’t do this you’re going to be running your diesel generators to the tune of millions of dollars, so we’re going to ream you over.
BREWTON: I think that’s an inaccurate assessment. The Forest Service has a responsibility to mitigate for the adverse impacts that are happening. There’s no dispute that we’re going to be flooding 362 acres of land up there. I don’t want to paint anybody with an improper brush here.
Brewton said the items on the list are simply talking points for negotiations. He said the results of those negotiations would still have to come back to the Assembly for approval. The negotiations must happen before June 7th. Assembly member Larry Crews questioned the timing.
CREWS: When were you presented with this?
CREWS: And it has to be done by June 7th, so we’ve got a couple weeks.
CREWS: And I’ll correct Mr. Christianson’s term. I don’t think it’s blackmail, I think it’s more extortion, in my viewpoint.
Again, Brewton objected.
“I still don’t agree with that term. I think that’s not fair,” he said. “The Forest Service and other resource agencies and stakeholders are doing their jobs by doing the things they’re supposed to do. If you want to talk about an issue where I think we are having some issues, let’s talk about FERC land-use fees. Green Lake property was transferred to the city years and years and years ago. We still pay a land-use fee to FERC every year for use of that land. Although we still own it, we’re paying $15,000 a year and that’s the law. That’s just the way it is. There are some things I’m very unhappy about, but the law’s the law. That’s where we are.”
FERC is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Crews asked Brewton if he knew the dollar amounts behind some of the projects on the list. Brewton says that will be part of the negotiations.
Offering up some sort of compensation for the land that will be flooded is mandatory, Brewton said. Assembly member Phyllis Hackett, later in the conversation, said she was frustrated that agencies have such a powerful stance at this point in the project.
“We have spent so many dollars on this project and so much time and energy on this project so far,” Hackett said, “and then finally to come to this point, that if we were to say ‘No, we don’t want to give away city land for this mitigation,’ they can say ‘OK, fine, end of project.’ That to me is a very interesting thing, that they can let you go hundreds of thousands of dollars into the process and then say, ‘Oh well.’”
Brewton told the Assembly he can’t imagine the Forest Service or any other agency would scuttle the project, and that all sides will work to find a settlement they can agree on. Ultimately, the Assembly approved the list of talking points, and gave Brewton few specific instructions, other than to be a tough negotiator.
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