The “afterbay” at the Blue Lake powerhouse spills directly into Sawmill Creek, which is only a couple of feet below it. The afterbay pumps are circled in red. According to NSRAA’s Scott Wagner, during extreme high tides the afterbay could flood with saltwater, resulting in “catastrophic” loss at the hatchery. The Sitka assembly nevertheless voted to require NSRAA to pump from the afterbay, and pay the $120,000 in annual electric costs to do so. Final contract details are still being hammered out in city hall. (CBS photo)

A nonprofit hatchery in Sitka built on the promise of free water, may have to start paying for the power needed to operate pumps.

The Sitka Assembly Tuesday night (4-30-19) reviewed new terms of a contract with the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association. When it’s finalized, NSRAA could be paying to pump water that it once received free via gravity.

In 2012 the City of Sitka and NSRAA signed a deal granting the association over 6 millions gallons of water a day to supply its salmon hatchery at Sawmill Cove Industrial Park — free of charge.

The water comes from the penstock and forebay above the hydroelectric plant. NSRAA now wants additional water to expand its production, but Sitka’s utility director Bryan Bertacchi is reluctant to give it up.

“The water level in Blue Lake is a tank, right?” Bertacchi said. “So if you’re ‘burning’ it for NSRAA, and you have a problem occur, say, Green Lake transmission line fails, Green Lake turbines fail, the waterway coming down from the lake fails, you have a drought — all these things that you can’t predict, I can’t predict, no one in this room or community can predict — you’ll already have lowered the tank.”

Bertacchi prefers that NSRAA pump its water exclusively from the afterbay, the concrete pond immediately below the turbines. The pumps are installed, and NSRAA already gets some of its water from these pumps, but it’s not without risk.

Assembly member Kevin Mosher asked hatchery manager Scott Wagner about the issue.

Mosher – So what are the risks for NSRAA getting it (water) from the afterbay?

Wagner – For one, the immediacy of an alternate source during a loss of water. Pumping out of the afterbay has other issues related to it, depending on the elevation of the afterbay. Right now there are some stop plugs in there so you can raise and lower it. When it’s lower, at really high tides you can get saltwater intrusion.

As in nature, hatcheries incubate eggs in freshwater. Wagner said that saltwater intrusion into the system would be “catastrophic.” A backup supply from the penstock would be critical to the survival of the salmon fry.

To operate from the afterbay pumps exclusively, NSRAA would have to pay for upgrades to increase their capacity — which it was going to do anyway. But what about the power? That’s estimated to cost $120,000 dollars a year.

Assembly member Valorie Nelson asked Wagner if NSRAA could foot the bill.

Nelson – And I would like to know what NSRAA’s position is on paying $120,000 a year additional for pumping. Thank you.

Wagner – Well, believe it or not, we’re nonprofit. Every extra dollar that we spend comes out of fishermen’s pockets. I think the value that we bring the community is huge. Without knowing exactly how many gallons of water flowed through the turbines last year, we’re using about 1-2 percent of the total allocation (of Blue Lake water permitted from the state). Last year, we produced revenue of over $28 million off that water.

Member Steven Eisenbeisz then motioned to charge the metered cost of pumping was charged in full to NSRAA. It passed 5-2, with Nelson and Mosher opposed.

The assembly then sent the amended contract back to the administration for additional fine-tuning, before it is scheduled for final consideration.

Note: The afterbay pumping system was extensively tested in 2014. Read the report here.