Construction is underway on the Blue Lake dam expansion. The hydro project is one of two supplying power to Sitka, and raising the dam by 83 feet is the largest public works project in Sitka history. On Sunday, the city led the first public tour of the construction site.
Some 74 members of the public file onto two school buses outside Harrigan Centennial Hall. Sitting up front on bus No. 2 is Mike White.
“Oh, I just wanted to see the beginning, the middle and the end,” he says. “It’s kind of interesting to see this much equipment come to town, and all the hoopla, and see what it’s all about.”
White says he’s watched from shore as pieces of equipment went floating past on barges, heading ultimately for the top of Blue Lake Road. And he’s spent a lot of time near the dam.
“I drive out there a couple times a week, and I usually take my dog for a walk out at the industrial park area,” he said. “I’ve watched this whole thing stage up, and the progression kind of increase.”
It’s about 7 miles to the top of Blue Lake Road. When the buses stop, the crowd gets off into a large flat lot. At the far end sits an enormous crane — the largest working crane in Alaska, according to project managers. White walks to one side of the lot, leans back, and snaps a picture on his iPhone.
“I think it’s impressive,” White said. “Right here where this crane was, that was just a big knob of rock. The crane alone is so impressive, that it’s on tracks, that it’s movable.”
The crane’s boom is 360 feet long. It’s capable of lifting about 660 tons, although they won’t need to use it for that much material. The reason it’s here is that it can reach all the way across the span of the Blue Lake dam.
Clif Stump is the project manager for Barnard Construction, the contractor working on the dam.
“We’ve got to set some equipment on the other side of the dam,” Stump said. “There’s about 1,500 yards of rock excavation on the other side of the dam before we can bring concrete up.”
Once the concrete comes up it will be added in steps, until it’s 8 feet wide, and 83 feet above the current height of the dam.
Members of the public had lots of questions, including some coming from Sitka resident Alexandra Fujioka.
“What if fish come up the stream near the dam?” the 5-year-old asked, matter-of-factly.
Stump told her salmon didn’t come that far up the stream.
“OK,” she replied, to chuckles from the crowd.
Older members of the public had questions about the surrounding area, too, including what will happen to the trees now standing in what will soon become part of the lake’s bottom. Someone in the crowd noted that a lot of potential firewood would be underwater.
Sitka Utility Director Chris Brewton said the intent was originally to remove the trees, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation and some engineering firms said the trees should stay in place to avoid stirring up sediment. Blue Lake is Sitka’s municipal drinking water source, and moving the trees could harm the water quality.
“It would be wonderful to get the wood out to be used, but the risks are too great for us to take a chance with the water quality,” Brewton said.
If something does go wrong with water quality, Sitka could be required to build a new filtration plant, which costs millions of dollars. Any trees that float to the surface will be taken to an area at the other end of the lake and burned.
Most of the tour was spent at the site of the crane. It was impossible to see the actual dam from that area, and the public was warned to stay back from the edges. In fact, officials would prefer the unaccompanied public keep its distance altogether. The work includes blasting, and participants in Sunday’s tour were given a fact sheet that included a map with restricted areas outlined in red. They include Blue Lake Road (except foot traffic to the Heart Lake trailhead), the nearby campground, the powerhouse area, Sawmill Cove Industrial Park, and all of Blue Lake itself.
The buses took a turn through the park, and past the site of the new Blue Lake powerhouse, where water will flow through three turbines and generate more electricity for Sitka.
Back at Centennial Hall, Alexandra Fujioka climbed off the bus with the help of her mom, Sara.
She says she learned a lot, including that it’s important to stay away from the construction site while work is underway. Then she launched into another question.
She and others will have another opportunity to have their questions answered. Officials expect to lead a second tour in the not-too-distant future.