Fish and Game looks to secure water rights along major state rivers

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is securing water rights along Alaska’s major rivers. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is currently taking public input on water reservation rights applications covering two stretches of the Tanana River near Fairbanks.

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Kimberly Sager is the sole person handling water rights applications for the DNR.

”A water right is when you are removing water from a river for one purpose or another,” Sager said. “In this case, this is a reservation of water where you’re retaining water.”

Sager said Fish and Game has primarily focused on water rights reservations on the Kuskokwim, Yukon and now Tanana Rivers, to protect habitat for salmon and other fish.

”So this is just one tool in the box that they can use to help manage the fisheries,” Sager said.

According to the DNR website, water is a common property resource in Alaska, and landowners do not have automatic rights to it. Sager said all known water uses are taken into account during the water reservation right application process.

”If something does come up like a mine or a project, a hydropower dam or something that major, we can always take a look and we will account for them if we are aware of what’s going on at the time of adjudication,” Sager said.

It’s not always Fish and Game seeking water rights. Sager said in recent years, developers and critics of the proposed Chuitna coal mine project near Cook Inlet both applied for water reservation rights along the Middle River. Sager said the state has increased its rate of application from four or five a year, to between 20 and 30 annually, in light of what’s happened in other states.

“In the Lower 48, as many people know, the water has fully been appropriated and allocated for different uses,” Sager said. “And they’re actually buying back water now in order to save water for fisheries purposes. In the state, we’re trying to be proactive.”

Sager said more than 130 water right reservations have been issued so far, noting that the rights are reviewed every ten years after issue, allowing reconsideration in light new issues or project proposals. Public comment is being accepted on the water reservation right applications for the Tanana River near Fairbanks through October 23rd.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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