Water permit decision angers salmon activists

The state’s Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday announced a precedent-setting decision ensuring Alaskans’ rights to some control over natural resource use, and in the process angered practically all parties involved in a water rights dispute.

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DNR’s division of mining land and water issued a decision Tuesday night regarding three instream flow water rights applications filed by the Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition. The Coalition wants the rights to water in Middle Creek,  or “stream 2003”, a salmon-bearing tributary of the Chuitna River. A dispute erupted over the water rights applications, because PacRim Coal, which proposes a mine in the area, wants water rights to the same stream. The dispute reached the courts, and now, because of a court deadline forcing a decision on the Coalition’s applications, DNR has granted one permit out of the three the Coalition has applied for.

Brent Goodrum, director of mining, land and water, says in granting the rights to the lower Middle Creek, the Coalition has scored a first.

“The state up to this point has issued about 131 reservations of water throughout the state. All of them have been to either state or federal government agencies. This is unique because it is the first one that is being awarded to a private party.”

But the Coalition failed to gain DNR approval on its applications for rights to the middle and the main branches of Middle Creek, and that does not sit well with Coalition founder Ron Burnett, who says the Coalition applied for the water rights to Middle Creek to protect salmon habitat.

“Pretty disappointing, because the upper two is the one’s that protect the spawning grounds. Yeah, we are pretty disappointed in it. ”

The  Coalition contends that the  two denied applications lie within the area Pac Rim wants for it’s coal mine.

Valerie Brown, an attorney with the Trustees for Alaska, says in denying two of the permits the Coalition requested, DNR is assuming that PacRim’s coal plan will go forward.

“One of the reasons it is so disappointing that we didn’t get the other two water reservations is because those water reservations are the headwaters of the stream and the spawning habitat for salmon.  So DNR basically reserved the lower portion, allowed us to have a water reservation in the lower portion of the stream and failed to protect the headwaters of the stream.  And they are very important for salmon. ”

Brown represented the Coalition in court.  She says DNR is still punting on a decision that has to be made on the two remaining water permits.  But PacRim’s applications for water have not been adjudicated yet, pending the completion of an environmental impact statement next year.

Dave Schade, with the division of mining, land and water, actually made the decision on the three water rights applications. He held a public hearing on the issue in late August. Shade says two of the permits were denied because they did not meet all the criteria needed to serve the public interest.

“It was not in the public interest for the department to be making a decision on competing applications, when we did not have a complete file in front of us. During the hearing, the applicant argued that I should be considering the entire Chuitna River watershed. I did not have that in front of me, and I did not have that as a record in front of me. All I had is a decision to make on three applications for only seven miles of the middle reach or stream 2003.”

And PacRim? Company spokespersons would not go on tape for this story, but in a release, PacRim Chuitna Coal Project manager Dan Graham, said that PacRim has been working with state and federal agencies to meet regulatory requirements since 2006. Graham says that his company agrees with DNR ‘s decision against two of the Coalitions’s permit applications, but is concerned about the potential regulatory implications of “granting state water to a small group of citizens that includes individuals who live outside of Alaska. “