House Resources Committee considers making Tier 3 water protection a legislative process

The Chilkat River at sunset. (Photo by Claire Stremple, KHNS – Haines)

The Chilkat River is one of five bodies of water in Alaska nominated for the highest federal water protection available. It’s called the Outstanding National Resource Water, or Tier 3, designation.

The House and Senate are considering bills that would make the state Legislature responsible for approving Tier 3 nominations.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires states to develop a process for granting Tier 3 water protections. Alaska has been working on its own process for the last 10 years.

Representative Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, said the Legislature has a constitutional obligation to weigh in on significant land and water use decisions. That is why he introduced House Bill 138, which would require the Legislature to review Tier 3 nominations.

“So this designation is so far-reaching, it’s beyond—it’s a political question,” Kopp said.

A Tier 3 designation prohibits any activity that would degrade the quality of a water body unless the impact is temporary and limited. Industry advocates worry the designations could have a far-reaching impact on uses of the surrounding land.

Not everyone agrees that the Legislature is the appropriate body to review Tier 3 nominations. Democratic Representative Sara Hannan of Juneau believes that legislators need state agencies to provide scientific analysis and recommendations for Tier 3 nominations. Otherwise, the decision is purely political.

“I’m okay with the final decision being made by a political entity, but I want it to be based on something. Not just my viewpoint and somebody else’s viewpoint just based on our own personal views or views that our constituents have shared with us,” Hannan said.

Earlier this year, the Senate Resources Committee reviewed a bill that would require state agencies like the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) to recommend Tier 3 nominations to the Legislature. Later, amendments were introduced that removed state agencies from the bill.

At a recent meeting, Earl Crapps with ADEC said that the department already has a policy for Tier 3.

“The policy itself, which is just a department policy, is the one that says nominations will be submitted to the Legislature for designation,” Crapps said. “EPA has indicated that is acceptable.”

Past guidelines allowed Tier 3 nominations to be submitted through ADEC, but the department decided they should be sent straight to the legislature.

The House Resource Committee will discuss whether the Legislature should be the sole body to review Tier 3 nominations on Friday at 1 p.m. There will be no opportunity for public comment. However, the hearing is available to stream online at akleg.gov.