DNR to consider changes to Alaska’s water management regulations

 Sockeye salmon escape a brown bear in the Bristol Bay watershed.
Sockeye salmon escape a brown bear in the Bristol Bay watershed. (KTUU)
Published: Feb. 25, 2021 at 8:13 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Last month, the state of Alaska posted a public letter informing residents of multiple proposed changes to the rules and processes for appropriating water.

In essence, the Division of Mining, Land and Water is considering changes applicable to the closure of water right applications, instream flow reservation applications, issuances and reviews, the procedures for temporary water use and public notices and hearings on critical water management areas.

The DNR’s letter states that the intent of the changes is “to provide clarity and consistency,” when it comes to the Alaska’s water use laws.

According to a 2017 report published by the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, the Alaska Legislature wrote the a code governing use of water soon after statehood.

In 1980, it was amended to include language about reserving water.

Opponents of the proposed changes say that DNR’s suggestions would not only fail to provide clarity and consistency, but that the measures being discussed would take away a tool that many have used to protect Alaska’s valuable salmon habitats from being damaged by haphazard developments.

Lindsey Bloom is a second-generation fisherman from Bristol Bay and works as a campaign strategist for SalmonState.

The organization’s website states that the group’s goal is “to keep Alaska a place where wild salmon, and the people who depend on them, thrive.”

“We have the choice to either protect and maintain habitat for salmon so that they have a chance — and we can be smarter and do it differently than Oregon, Washington and California,” Bloom said. “Or, what DNR is proposing is that we do it the same way everyone else did and hope for a different outcome.”

According to Bloom, the issue of removing the rights of private groups, individuals and tribal organizations to reserve water rights goes far beyond Salmon as well.

For example, an application might be filled to reserve the rights to water that’s necessary to landing a floatplane; however, SalmonState’s concern primarily revolves around making sure that salmon have access to the water that they need when spawning.

On the other side of the argument, there are those who feel that instream flow reservations have been misused as tools for preventing resource development near waterways.

Alaska Miners Association President Deantha Skibinski told Alaska’s News Source that her organization supports the proposed changes.

“Right now, we have a system where private parties have no accountability or responsibility to public agencies or the residents of Alaska are able to manage these public resources, and that’s inappropriate,” Skibinksi said. “No individual, private person should have the authority to regulate water body and fish protection. We have public employees and public servants that are required to meet the law.”

Skibinksi also says the proposed changes should not be singled out as being related to proposed mining projects, as the state and federal permitting procedures for undergoing mineral extraction are complex and often take years to complete.

Bloom is supportive of making changes to the regulations, but says DNR is going in the opposite direction of what she feels might work best: a blanket policy that requires a certain amount of water to be dedicated to local fish populations, anytime projects require the use of water.

“Those industries and projects that need to take the water out and appropriate water for other uses, that’s fine — but you need to ensure that you’re leaving water in the stream, flow in the stream for salmon,” she said.

The current process for receiving water rights requires an applicant to provide five years worth of hydrology data related to the water in question before a consideration can be made by DNR.

Once granted, water rights are reviewed by the department at least once every 10 years. Those rights can also expire if the right-holder does not use the water in question for a five-year period.

Public comments related to the changes in question can be submitted anytime before 5 p.m. on Mar. 19. Emailed comments can be directed to dnr.water.regulation@alaska.gov. Information regarding fax and written submissions can be found online at the state of Alaska’s public notice webpage.

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