Wednesday, December 28, 2011

US Plans its First Megadam in 40 Years by Fred Pearce

It reads like a fairy tale from the brothers Grimm: a giant US state is planning a giant hydroelectric dam that could flood a tiny shrew out of its idyllic home.

Later this month, Alaskan authorities will file plans in Washington DC for a 213-metre megadam on one of the country's last remaining wild rivers: the Susitna. If approved, it would be the country's first hydroelectric megadam for 40 years, and its fifth tallest, just 8 metres shy of the Hoover dam.

Opponents say the project is a $4.5 billion boondoggle that will affect wildlife including caribou, grizzly bears and salmon. Instead they say the state should tap its abundant tidal, geothermal and wind power.

But the icon for protest against the dam may turn out to be the country's most secretive shrew. Weighing in at just 1.5 grams, Sorex yukonicus lives on a bank 10 kilometres downstream of the proposed site for the dam.

In 1995, Daniel Beard, head of the US Bureau of Reclamation, the nation's main constructor of dams, declared the US dam-building era over. He cited growing environmental concerns. Dozens of dams have since been torn down to revive fisheries and reinstate river habitats.

But after years in the environmental doghouse, large dams are being promoted as a source of low-carbon energy, and the 600-megawatt Susitna project looks like it could be the first to get the green light.
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