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Water Reservations Bill ignites fireworks in the Legislature

On Wednesday, April 3, forty-four people testified on the In-Stream Water Reservations Bill (HB77).  Forty-one of those people opposed the bill.  As one citizen from Sterling put it: “Alaska’s voice is pretty clear on this issue.”  Forty-one Alaskans provided a unified voice against HB77, arguing that the bill eliminates certain water rights from Alaskans and erodes or eliminates the ability for Alaskans to comment on certain water and natural resource issues.

A quick reminder of the controversy surrounding this bill:

  • HB77 intends to revoke the ability for individual Alaskans, groups, or federally recognized Tribes to apply for water reservations as individuals or Tribes
    • These water reservations are sought to protect adequate water flow for salmon spawning habitat, wildlife habitat, recreation, and/or water transportation
    • HB77 intends to nullify all water reservation applications submitted by Alaskan individuals, organizations, or federally recognized Alaska Native Tribes with zero compensation for money, time, or resources dedicated to the application process
    • HB77 provides the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner clear authority to issue a General Permit, if in the Commissioner’s opinion the permit does not pose a “significant or irreparable harm” to Alaskans.  These General Permits would not require any public comment period, nor is “significant or irreparable” defined.
      • It also gives DNR authority to issue a permit that would negatively impact salmon habitat if it is the department determines it is in the “best interest of the state.”
      • Reminder: DNR unilaterally changed its mission statement last year without public or Legislative review, removing the words “conserve, enhance, and future generations.”
      • HB77 intends to eliminate the state requirement for DNR to notify the public and provide public comment periods for Best Interest Findings.
        • In other words, the bill would eliminate the requirement for the public to be notified of, and comment on the initial review of the Best Interest Finding process (a process on the front end of water and resource-related issues).
        • HB77 opens the door for litigation by reducing citizen participation and citizens’ ability to apply for water reservations.

Some highlights from Thursday’s hearing:

  • Senator Lyman Hoffman (D, Bethel) came out swinging against the bill, stating on the record that he was not elected by the public to limit or eliminate citizens’ rights.  He also stated that Section 40 of the bill, which focuses on removing opportunities for individual Alaskans and Alaskan Tribes to apply for water reservations, is unconstitutional as it violates Article 8 of the Alaska Constitution.
  • Senator Pete Kelly (R, Fairbanks) called many Alaskans’ testimony “absurd.” He went on to claim that Alaska “has a statutory flaw that allows Outside groups to employ a strategy to shut down development,” and that “Outside groups are killing Alaska.”
    • 44 people testified on this bill—all of whom were Alaskan and whose interests in Alaska are long term and family-oriented.
    • If Senator Pete Kelly is so adverse to Outside interests, why then does he welcome with open arms corporations whose headquarters are in London, Toronto, Vancouver, Houston, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Sydney, etc. whose only interests in Alaska are short term and profit oriented?
    • DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan defended this bill by stating that Alaska “is blessed with abundant water,” and mentioned that we haven’t had the water battles the Lower 48 has.
      • This comment demonstrates a very casual and cavalier approach to Alaska’s real treasure: clean water and habitat.
      • Washington and Oregon are also blessed with abundant water.  However, after years of cavalier attitude toward the importance of water (similar to what we’re seeing in the Legislature right now), we can see how their salmon stocks have fared.  The Columbia River drainage, for example, historically spawned 16 million Chinook per year (estimate for year 1900).  In 2011, after over $1 billion spent on restoration activities, the Columbia spawned slightly less than 1 million Chinook.  For those that are keeping tabs: that’s a billion dollars of public money spent to restore salmon runs to 5-7% of their historic levels.  That is not a good investment, and it’s likely that both Washington and Oregon wish their approach to water hadn’t been so cavalier.
      • DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan also put a patently false statement on record by claiming no other states in the U.S. have mechanisms in place that allow individuals or tribes to apply for water reservations.  Quick research shows that Arizona and Nevada both allow residents to apply for water reservations/appropriations.

The Senate Finance Committee will take this bill up again on Friday or Saturday (April 4 or 5), with the potential to assign it to a subcommittee for more thorough analysis.  This issue needs more attention, and soon.  And what’s the best way to do that?  By actively participating in democracy and making your voice heard:

  • Write a My Turn, Compass Piece, or Letter to the Editor to your newspaper of choice (Juneau Empire, Anchorage Daily News, etc.).  For a good example, click here.  This will ensure that both the public and law makers will hear your voice loud and clear.
  • Contact the Senate Finance Committee by email or phone call.
  • Tell your friends and family to do the same—to stand up for water, for salmon, for democracy, and for the future health of Alaska.
  • Contact SEACC at 586-6942, daven@seacc.org, or james@seacc.org for more information.
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