Water is plentiful in Alaska, and anybody can apply for the right to draw water for personal or commercial use. But a bill that would allow only the government to preserve water has sparked debate.
A water reservation preserves a set amount of water to remain in a water body. The purpose is to reserve water for public purposes such as fish habitat, recreation, transportation, sanitation and drinking water. Anybody can apply for a water reservation.
Environmental sociologist Nikos Pastos is a board member for the Center for Water Advocacy, which hosted a conference last week in Anchorage. Pastos says legislation introduced by Gov. Sean Parnell would stop Alaskans, including tribes, from making water reservations.
So it was a very hot topic today."
Conference participants commented that the state is holding up issuing water reservation certificates while it tries to stop tribes and others from getting them until the Legislature adopts HB 77.
Wyn Menefee is Operations Manager for the Division of Mining, Land, and Water in the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. He says the approval process for water reservation applications has been slow – DNR has approved only 31 in the last three years. But he says new appropriations have allowed DNR to hire new staff, which he says will help clear up the backlog of 731 pending water reservation applications.
"Some of those very well could be tribes. There’s like the Cheshna tribal council and the Quarang tribal council. But there’s groups like Trout Unlimited and Copper River Watershed projects, some things like that and even individuals. But," Menefee says, " there’s only 31 of those in the state. So when you look at the broad scale of how many waters we have in the state of Alaska, by far the biggest applicant is [the Alaska Department of] Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is probably second for quantities of applications."
Menefee says the state believes those 31 applications should be coming through a public agency, and HB 77 would make it so.
"A reservation is you’re basically holding a public resource in that water body. And the state feels it’s appropriate to have a public entity holding a water reservation for a public interest, holding for the public."
Menefee says under HB 77, agencies could apply on behalf of individuals and organizations.
"It’s not just the state that could hold the water reservations or apply. It’s also the federal government and political subdivisions of the state, which are boroughs and such."
As for tribes, Menefee said "Tribes are not a political subdivision of the state so therefore they do not qualify under the way the bill would be written."
Menefee says HB77 would set a higher standard for appeals or requests for reconsideration of decisions. It would also spell out DNR’s authority to issue general permits unless it finds a project would cause significant and irreparable harm.
As it is now, tribes say it’s not that easy to get a water reservation certificate. An applicant has to collect five years of data about the water body where they want to reserve flow. Emily Murray, of the Golovin Native Corporation, says it takes too long already, and turning data collection over to an agency would put their application into limbo:
"We’re collecting data from the Tubuktulik River and also the Golovin Watershed Alliance has been collecting data from the Fish River for almost three or four years, and I think Tubuktulik has been like two years. So," says Murray, "this would ultimately have a huge impact on the data we’re collecting."
She also says villages can’t rely on the state to watch out for their interests, and need to be able to protect a critically important resource.
"It would also affect our salmon, healthy salmon, for our culture that we depend on, our way of life where we do dried salmon, smoked salmon, put away salmon. So it would ultimately affect our small population."
HB77, or SB 26, is in the Senate Rules Committee, and if approved, would go to the Senate floor then to the House, after the Legislative session starts in January.
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