How should Alaska evaluate Tier 3 water protection nominations?

Photographers take pictures of eagles feeding on salmon in the Chilkat River. The Chilkat River is one of four water bodies in Alaska nominated for Tier 3 protection. (Emily Files)

People in four Alaska communities are trying to get the highest level of protection available under federal law for water bodies important to them. Outstanding National Resource Water protection, also known as Tier 3, shields waterways from any significant pollutants. But what happens with pending Tier 3 nominations is an open question.

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The pending nominations are for the Chilkat River in Haines, the Koktuli River in Bristol Bay, the Yakutat Forelands and the Chandalar River in Venetie.

Nothing can happen with these applications because the state is still deciding what process it should follow to evaluate them.

“It’s a complicated subject,” Michelle Hale said. She’s the director of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Water.

Hale and her staff are going back to the drawing board in their quest to determine how to deal with Tier 3 nominations.

“These are questions that we have tussled with,” Hale said during a recent teleconference.

The teleconference was arranged to gather public input on this topic. Hale also facilitated meetings in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks and has another scheduled in Dillingham.

“We’re really trying to get input from people who are interested in this topic to help us move forward with a Tier 3 designation process,” Hale said.

This isn’t DEC’s first stab at creating a Tier 3 evaluation procedure. Last year, the department decided Tier 3 nominations have such broad implications that the decisions should be left to the Alaska legislature. Gov. Bill Walker introduced legislation to that effect.

“That legislation itself generated a lot of questions and controversy,” Hale said.

Many people spoke out against it, saying the decisions would become politicized. So, Gov. Walker withdrew the bills. He said he wanted to incorporate more public input. That’s the incentive behind the teleconference and meetings DEC held in March.

Before we get into the feedback DEC heard during the teleconference, let’s talk about what Tier 3 designations would actually do.

The implications of Tier 3 protection help explain why it’s been so difficult for the state to settle on a process.

The federal Clean Water Act requires states to have a procedure in place to evaluate Outstanding Water nominations. These protections go beyond what’s currently available in Alaska. In most Alaska waters, discharges that degrade water quality are allowed, up to a point. But if a water body gets Tier 3 status, the restrictions get a lot tighter. Only short term, temporary degradation is allowed.

“The water quality at the time of [Tier 3] designation has to stay the same,” Hale said. “And that means additional pollutants, for example, a wastewater discharge stream, cannot be added to that water. And that creates a lot of the questions and a lot of the conflict that comes from the Tier 3 designation process.”

There is already conflict in places like Haines, which would be impacted if tighter pollution restrictions were put on the Chilkat River. The Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan (20 miles north of Haines and also neighboring the Chilkat River) applied for Tier 3 status. Village leaders say the protection would help secure the future of a vital salmon resource.

But many people in Haines were upset by the nomination. They worry it could stymie economic growth by preventing development, including a potential mine that is in the exploration phase near the Chilkat River.

“The process that we come up with needs to work well for all Alaskans and for all waters of the state now and in the future,” Hale said.

The people on the teleconference weighed in on who should be allowed to nominate a Tier 3 water, what criteria should be used, and what the evaluation process should look like. One of the clearest messages those on the line conveyed was this:

“We oppose legislative approval,” Verner Wilson from the Bristol Bay Native Association said.

Wilson and others said they want DEC to make decisions on Tier 3 nominations, not the legislature.

Hale said if Tier 3 decisions are left to DEC, it’s unclear how to pay for it, especially since the department has downsized due to state budget cuts.

Hale said right now there are still more questions than answers. But she hopes the public input DEC is gathering will provide a clearer direction.

Anyone can learn more about the issue and contribute their own input on DEC’s website.

Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.

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