In its front-page article published Friday regarding the Chuitna mine-related water reservations lawsuit, the Daily News missed two major points.
First, while the Alaska Department of Natural Resources has not started processing the Chuitna Citizens Coalition's applications for water reservations, there is no immediate need for such reservations that requires DNR or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to prioritize these applications in advance of the many others we have before us.
Second, the story brushed off the larger issue, that the state is doing a better job than it ever has before in issuing water reservations.
It is true that DNR has not started processing CCC's applications. The primary reason is that we have more than 300 other reservation applications that also need to be processed and only a limited amount of time and staff to do so. My department works with ADFG to decide which of these important applications should be processed first. Many factors are considered in setting these priorities, including whether there are near-term competing uses on a water body or an immediate conflict that could affect fish or fish habitat.
For Middle Creek (Stream 2003), the subject of CCC's water reservation applications, the only significant potential competing water use is the proposed Chuitna Coal Mine, which is currently in the middle of an extensive environmental impact review. The mine project has not yet submitted its applications for water appropriation. DNR is at least a year or more away from making any decisions for this project on water appropriations. When that decision-making process begins, DNR will consider all competing uses of the water in carrying out its duties concerning both water and fish. Processing CCC's application will not change this.
I must also add that we are greatly improving the speed at which we process water reservation requests. In the last three years of the Parnell administration, we have processed more than half the reservations issued since statehood, 33 in all. And we continue to work on eliminating the backlog of other applications.
This legal challenge illustrates serious concerns we have with Alaska's water appropriation statutes, problems we are currently trying to address with proposed legislation -- House Bill 77.
Alaska law currently allows any person or organization, Alaskan or not, to apply for a water reservation on any of our waters. Water reservations are complex and typically require five years of data collection to ensure we understand the water flows. Some have asserted that we should not allow any other use of that water for the five years that it could take to process the application. This is simply not good public policy and could greatly harm Alaskans who need to use our waters.
A water reservation is a water right that is held for a public benefit. We want to encourage individuals and organizations to partner with us as we consider new water reservation applications and tackle the backlog.
However, we believe that water reservation applications should be submitted by a public agency, whether state, federal, or local, and the reservation itself should be held by these public agencies. This is the intent of House Bill 77.
These are serious and complex issues that should be of great concern to all Alaskans, and I urge everyone to fully understand them. DNR will hold public meetings around the state to discuss these and other permitting issues, and we will post a schedule on our website in the near future (dnr.state.ak.us).
Ed Fogels is the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.