Public divided over process for establishing federal water quality protections

The Chilkat River in 2009. (Dave Bezaire/Flickr Creative Commons)

Several communities across Alaska have nominated their local waters for a federal Tier 3 designation, which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s highest water quality standard. Until the state establishes a process for approving or denying those nominations, they remain in limbo.

The Senate Resources Committee introduced a bill last month requiring a recommendation by three state agencies and approval by the legislature to implement these water protections.

Outstanding National Resource Waters, also known as Tier 3 waters, are protected from any activities that degrade water quality unless the degradation is temporary and limited.

At a meeting last week, Senate Resources Committee Chair Chris Birch said that Senate Bill 51 would codify a process for designating these waters in Alaska.

“I introduced SB51 to ensure that the authority to designate such waters lies where the state constitution intends it to, within the hands of the state legislature,” Birch said.

According to Birch, Tier 3 waters could have broad impacts on resource development, recreation and other activities on state lands and waters. For this reason, SB51 would require a Tier 3 nomination to receive a recommendation from three state agencies: The Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Game. The nomination would then be sent to the legislature for approval.

Industry groups such as Southeast Conference, Sealaska Corporation, the Alaska Support Industry Alliance and the Alaska Miners Association have written letters and testified in support of SB51.

Not everyone thinks it is such a good idea. Senator Jesse Kiehl of Senate District Q has doubts about the bill.

“It looks like it is mostly structured to set up hurdles rather than make a carefully considered decision,” Kiehl said.

Kiehl represents communities of the Upper Lynn Canal in the state legislature and sits on the Senate Resources Committee. He believes that requiring a recommendation from three state agencies for a Tier 3 nomination is a constraint on the legislature.

He is not alone. Kimberley Strong is tribal council president of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan. She says people in Klukwan have relied on the Chilkat River for salmon and other wild food sources for thousands of years.

At a meeting Wednesday, Strong told the Senate Resources Committee that SB51 would make it almost impossible for her community to obtain a Tier 3 designation for the river.

“We’ll have to go through three different commissioners just to say they will all agree that the Chilkat River is important enough to the entire state to bring it to you folks in the legislative position that you’re in, and then we’re going to take it to the governor and see if he wants to veto it because of the political wranglings that go on,” Strong said.

The Chilkat River is among five rivers in Alaska that have been nominated for a Tier 3 designation. The Chandalar River, the Yakutat Forelands, the Koktuli River and the Draanjik River have also been nominated for Tier 3 designations.