Speak up for Alaska’s Water Quality at Triennial Review

Written by Sarah Davidson

November 5, 2020

Now is your chance to add your voice to Alaska’s water quality management for the next three years! Here is some information and talking points about the 2021-2023 Triennial Review of Alaska Water Quality Standards. A public hearing will be held from 4-6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, and all public comments will be accepted through Monday, Nov. 30, at 5 p.m.


  • The public hearing on Nov. 5 will begin with a Q&A session, in which DEC representatives will answer questions from the public on the Alaska water quality standards they manage.
  • After that, official testimony will be accepted and all comments made will be on the record.
  • To participate in the Q&A or provide oral comments, call: (800) 315-6338, access code 51851


  • All official written comments on the triennial review must be sent to DEC by 5 p.m. on Nov. 30.
  • Comments should be submitted to Brock Tabor, through one of the following ways:
    Email: brock.tabor@alaska.gov
    Online: http://aws.state.ak.us/OnlinePublicNotices
    Mail: Brock Tabor, DEC Division of Water, at 410 Willoughby Ave, Suite 303. P.O. Box
    118000, Juneau, Alaska 99811
    Fax: (907) 465-5274


  • Alaska’s 44,000 miles of coastline remain home to some of the cleanest waters and healthiest salmon runs left in the world. These resources, at the heart of our economy, cultures, and lifestyles, are what make Alaska resilient. Unfortunately, the regulations protecting them remain very weak — some of the weakest in the nation.
  • Under the federal Clean Water Act, the State of Alaska is required protect the health of our waters for current Alaskans and future generations. This responsibility falls to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
  • The Clean Water Act also requires states to conduct a review of their water quality standards (WQS) every three years, also known as a “triennial review.”
  • State WQS must be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before they can be implemented.
  • DEC has publicized a list of priority issues for this Triennial Review. You can find that list, titled 2021-2024 Triennial Review Issue Summary on DEC’s website: https://dec.alaska.gov/water/water-quality/triennial-review
  • The three issues that affect you most are: 1. Fish Consumption Rate (part of the Human Health Criteria); 2. Mixing Zones; and 3. National Outstanding Resource Waters or “Tier 3 Waters.”
  • More information for each follows, along with a list of suggested questions for the Q&A.


  • It is the State’s responsibility to limit the amount of pollution that enters Alaskan waters by setting Water Quality Criteria — the maximum limits of pollution allowable to keep water safe for human and aquatic life. Water Quality Criteria are set to protect human health and are determined through a formula with two main factors, Fish Consumption Rate, under guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Acceptable Rate of Cancer, which is strictly a policy decision. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recommends criteria for both factors to be adopted into law by the state legislature.
  • The Fish Consumption Rate estimates how much “fish” (including all foods gathered from water such as salmon, fish eggs, shellfish, and seaweeds) each Alaskan eats on average each day. This number is used to determine how much pollution can be allowed into our shared waterways before it becomes unsafe for human and aquatic life.
  • The current Fish Consumption Rate in the State of Alaska is too low to be protective. It’s currently set at a mere 6.5 grams of fish, per day, per person (g/d/p) — about the size of a small strawberry. Meanwhile, the national average sits at 22 g/d/p or 144 g/d/p for a population that eats a lot of fish. Studies completed by Alaska Native Tribes show that the state’s fish consumption is closer to 250 g/d/p. Some members of villages in Southeast Alaska obtain 80% of their food from the waters and land.
  • Keeping the Fish Consumption Rate low harms Alaskans. Consumption of fish and other aquatic foods, along with drinking water, are the primary pathways by which we are exposed to toxins.
  • Keeping the Fish Consumption Rate low lets polluters off the hook. By keeping the presumed amount of fish we eat low, the state allows more toxins to contaminate our waters, letting polluters save money in water treatment costs. The more fish the government recognizes we eat, the more protective our Water Quality Standards will have to be.
  • Keeping the Fish Consumption Rate low is an insult to Alaskans and we deserve better. Alaska lags far behind other states in updating its Fish Consumption Rate despite having the highest per capita consumption of fish in the nation. As a state whose economy and culture depend on healthy aquatic environments, we deserve better.
  • How much fish do you eat each day (estimate in grams or compare to number of small strawberries)? Let DEC know and get a realistic amount for you and your family on the record.


  • Mixing zones refer to the underwater “sacrifice” areas surrounding discharge pipes where pollution is legally dumped above water quality standards and expected to be “diluted” to meet those standards by the time it moves some distance from the pipe to the boundary of the invisible zone. Mixing zones operate under the expectation that the “solution to pollution is dilution.”
  • Mixing zones exist to meet the needs of polluters, not the public. Their purpose is to weaken or remove the application of water quality standards within a specified area.
  • Alaska allows mixing zones where meeting “end of pipe” water quality limits is not viewed as “economically practical.” Examples include municipal wastewater treatment facilities, seafood processors, oil and gas wastewater discharges, mining activities, and cruise ship wastewater discharges.
  • Mixing zones must not be permitted in salmon spawning waters. Alaska regulations prohibit mixing zones in spawning areas of anadromous Pacific salmon and other fish species because of harm to aquatic life, but in 2019 the EPA moved to change the rules to allow states to permit mixing zones in salmon spawning waters. Alaska has already tried to change the rules to allow this in 2006 and would likely move forward with this industry-backed change if sanctioned by the EPA.
  • Mixing zones sacrifice public waters, diminish water quality, and potentially harm aquatic and human life. Alaska has the authority to adopt standards stricter than federal guidelines.
  • Alaska’s mixing zones should:
    – Based on the amount of toxic waste being dumped (loading) and not the concentration. Dilution is not the solution.
    – Have protocols in place to address the impacts of multiple mixing zones and multiple pollutant mixing zones in a single waterbody.
    – Be prohibited in impaired waters (where WQS are not already met), in close proximity to parts of the coast where people harvest food, and in areas where they can impact threatened or endangered species.
    – Be publicly listed once approved, describing the location, substances being dumped, and risks.


  • Waterways that have been designated as “Outstanding National Resource Waters” (ONRW) or “Tier 3” are provided the highest level of protection under the federal Clean Water Act and the State of Alaska, due to their exceptional importance.
  • The DEC protects Tier 3 Waters by not approving permits to dump waste into the waterbody.
  • A Tier 3 designation protects all current uses of the waterbody and allows short-term degradation (motor boats, cleaning fish, culture camps, private septic systems, temporary construction, etc.). The designation only denies new point source permits that would cause long-term degradation.
  • Five waterbodies have been nominated (the Chandalar River, the Yakutat Forelands, the Chilkat River, the Koktuli River, and the Draanjik River), the oldest of the which was nominated 10 years ago (the Koktuli River), but none have been processed by the state.
  • Currently both DEC and the Legislature have the authority to designate a Tier 3 as the statutes are written.
  • A Tier 3 designation is the only way for the residents of Alaska to protect exceptional waters, critically important to our communities, fish, and economies.
  • Currently, foreign corporations can pollute our waters by merely submitting an application to DEC, but Alaska residents remain without a clear process for protecting the waters they depend on for livelihood and survival.
  • Last year, the State tried to make it more difficult to protect waters through a Tier 3 designation by writing a policy forcing Tier 3 nominations to go through the Legislature only, substituting science for politics, and avoiding a public process of rule-making. The Legislature has always been able to designate a Tier 3 and this remains the case. The change was an attempt to remove DEC’s authority to designate Tier 3 waters.
  • But as it stands now, DEC still has the authority to designate Tier 3 waters through the Triennial Review process because EPA has not approved any alternative process. Any final decision would likely be held until changes to the antidegradation implementation guidance proposed by DEC as an outcome of the Triennial Review process is approved by the EPA.
  • Therefore, as part of this 2021-2023 Triennial Review process, I request that the DEC water department prioritize review of and response to the five existing nominations for Outstanding National Resource Waters in the state of AK and any additional nominations received prior to the review deadline on Nov. 30, according to the process outlined in the 2010 antidegradation interim guidance.


  1. Is there anything that prevents Alaska from having water quality standards higher than the minimums EPA sets for all states? If so, what are they?
  2. Was anything changed in Alaska’s water quality standards as a result of public comments from the last Triennial Review in 2018? If so, what?
  3. The Fish Consumption Rate under Human Health Criteria has been a top priority since the 2013-2016 Triennial Review. Has the rate changed since the last review? If so, what is the change? If not, why not? What’s the next step?
  4. In 2019, EPA proposed a change to allow mixing zones in anadromous salmon streams. This made it possible for Alaska’s own 2006 attempt to allow mixing zones in salmon streams to move forward. How has EPA’s 2019 position change affected DEC’s mixing zone regulations so far? Do you expect any further changes to result?
  5. Has DEC ever denied a discharge permit application because of a proposed mixing zone that was insufficient?
  6. What gives you confidence that pollutants allowed in a mixing zone will not extend beyond its boundaries or that aquatic life will not swim through a mixing zone or live in it, and be impacted by the pollution it allows?
  7. Would an existing Tier 3 waterbody nomination be reviewed for designation through the Triennial Review process? If not, why not?


  • Get more information about the Triennial Review on the DEC website.
  • View the short film, We Eat Fish, about the fist consumption rate on SEACC’s website.
  • Get more information about mixing zones on DEC’s website.
  • Check out our tips on delivering public testimony and substantive public comments.

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