If you look at the Wood-Tikchik State Park on a map, you’ll see a bump on its eastern boundary line, jutting out to include Nuyakuk Falls, just three miles inside the park.
“Well, it’s absolutely beautiful," said Pat Vermillion, one of the owners of the Royal Coachman Lodge, situated about two miles upstream from the falls. “It divides the river into three shoots that are pretty intimidating to even get close to them, they’re pumping so much water through."
Nushagak Cooperative, a regional utility co-op, wants to harness that force, moving the region away from diesel fuel and toward clean, renewable energy, which could also lower high energy costs for its members. It has identified Nuyakuk Falls as an ideal location for a hydroelectric generator. Now it’s beginning the federal permitting process in earnest.
Their model would divert up to 30 percent of the river's flow through a generator and return it to the river at the bottom of the falls. The preliminary design includes a 750-foot tunnel through the bluff and a diversion dam which directs that flow through two turbines.
Nushagak Co-op has said that if studies show that more of the flow can be diverted without adversely impacting fish in the area, they may lobby the legislature to push the 30 percent limit higher.
The generator would produce an estimated 58,200 megawatt hours a year. That’s more than two-and-a-half times the region’s current energy needs of 23,000 mWh — enough power for the member communities to turn off their diesel generators most of the time. The river’s flow increases during the summer, and its energy output would as well, meaning the generator could not only meet the energy demands of salmon processors, but also lower their energy costs.
But Nuyakuk River is also a highway for one of the region’s major salmon runs. Vermillion said that has prompted concerns about the development.
“Nuyakuk Lake, Tikchik Lake, and Chauekuktuli Lake are all upstream of these waterfalls, and they have massive amounts of sockeye salmon that spawn in the creeks that flow into them. And they also swim right through that waterfall,” he said.
The co-op has yet to determine whether the generator would impact fish. A state bill passed this summer allows them to do so, by conducting feasibility studies at the site over the next few years.
“We’re looking for a reason why we shouldn’t move forward," said Robert Himschoot, the CEO for Nushagak Cooperative. “So far, there hasn’t been any fatal exclusion on the desktop feasibility. There hasn’t been anyone come forward in our outreach to say, ‘no matter, no how, no way.’”
The co-op has considered other rivers in the park before, but the Nuyakuk site is different. Its waters are fast-moving, and rush around a the U-shaped bend in the river, called the oxbow, where the project would be situated. That means the water can be diverted over 2,000 feet, which is a relatively short distance to produce a lot of energy.
The communities of Dillingham, Aleknagik, and Koliganek have issued statements supporting feasibility studies at the site. Nushagak Co-op says it has held more than 80 meetings on the project so far. But at a kick-off meeting in November, people expressed concern about the accessibility of the meetings for local residents.
Himschoot is cautiously optimistic about the project’s potential to generate power without harming fish.
“I think the potential benefits for the communities in the watershed, along with the design that we are putting forward — the diversion with no dam — until you have the actual hard studies, you have the boots on the ground, you know what's going on... there’s enough potential there, enough benefit,” he said.
The park comprises 1.6 million acres of forest, mountains, lakes and streams. Himschoot says the site’s location on public lands raises the stakes for the project. Still, he thinks there is enough initial support to move forward in the permitting process.
But many are worried about building infrastructure on public lands. Kurt Hensel is the superintendent for the Chugach/Southwest state parks. He says that building a hydroelectric facility in the park isn’t necessarily off-limits, but he also pointed out that in these early planning stages, there are a lot of questions, like the placement of the proposed airstrip and roads.
“One of the bigger concerns that I’m looking at, of course the water diversion, but also the transmission lines, and just how it looks like from the air," Hensel said. "It’s going to be a manmade facility in a natural park, and so scenic views are pretty important for us.”
It would cost and estimated $120 - $140 million to build the project. Along with how the project would impact the environment, a big question is how much residents would save. Analyzing its financial feasibility requires some speculation.
If the co-op borrowed all of the money to build the project, it would stabilize energy rates. According to Himschoot, that's the worst case scenario. But they are hoping to reduce that debt through federal grants, and say that when the debt is paid off, he said, the rates will drop significantly.
In the coming year, Nushagak Co-op plans to conduct some fundamental assessments and data collection. Further studies will be planned through 2022, focusing on cultural, aquatics and fisheries resources.