Notes From The 6th Annual Northwest Tribal Water Rights Conference – Cause For Concern

One of my recently received E-mails was about a scientific report documenting the connectivity of water in regards to other water bodies, namely how upstream waters connect to downstream waters.  Not to be flippant, but all plumbers know that human excrement flows downhill (most plumbers tend to point that fact out more graphically by using one less word…and with a word that rhymes with hit).


In all seriousness, the EPA and the Corps of Engineers are attempting to clarify the various agencies’ jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act and improve the regulation’s effectiveness in restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. Back in 1948, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was established, and then was significantly reorganized and expanded in 1972.  Those amendments resulted in what is now referred to as The Clean Water Act.

So unimpaired water is what it’s all about, and long before our Congress set out to prevent water pollution, others before knew the importance and significance that water plays in our lives as demonstrated by Leonardo da Vinci who during the 15th Century said:  “When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.”

Last week I attended the sixth annual Northwest Tribal Water Rights Conference in Anchorage, and it was a very informative meeting that dealt mostly about water issues.  Much of it revolved around the threats to water quality and quantity throughout the state, as well as other environmental issues facing tribal lands and resources that often pose a threat to individuals’ food security.  The common theme throughout the conference coincided with the insight of da Vinci – and that was that water is the one substance that bonds the human race together and likewise connects us with our environment…so it connects much more than bodies of water as is shown in the web page above.

It was noted – more than once – that by weight, the human body is made up of well over 50 % water.  The implication here being that if we don’t take care of the water around us…then we won’t be taking care of ourselves.  It was also noted that water is the foundation upon which the Native subsistence economy is built.

The invited keynote speaker, Caleb Behn, an up-and-coming leader from the Canadian First Nations who represented the Eh-Cho Dene and Dunne Za/Cree Clans from Northeastern British Columbia, gave an impassioned talk for the need to protect our waters and our environment.  Mr. Behn knows what he is talking about, he comes from a region where there are over 16,000 oil and gas well sites; 8,500 petroleum and natural gas facilities; four existing and four proposed coal mines; large tracts of land being vigorously logged and two large-scale hydroelectric dams in place with several others proposed.

Caleb is the first person from the University of Victoria to receive a law degree in Environmental Law & Sustainability.  His activities – or activism – will be featured in a documentary called Fractured Land, which “explores the ever-deteriorating symbiosis between humanity and the land that we are privileged to inhabit”.  (See the trailer @ Behn)

The meeting in Anchorage had no shortage of heartfelt testimony about environmental concerns and social injustices by tribal members from across our state.  The crew filming Fractured Land accompanied Caleb and captured much of the testimony, so some of the meeting’s proceedings may make the film…we’ll just have to see.

Considering our growing environmental concerns, we here in Alaska have not had to face what Caleb and his People have been confronting since before he was a child.  There are, however, immense issues looming on our horizon, many of which have the potential to degrade water quality and negatively impact habitat for both terrestrial and aquatic species; subsequently threatening the long standing subsistence lifestyle of so many.

As pointed out, many of these issues can ultimately affect our precious waters; in turn, salmon, which are one of Alaska’s most prominent icons, are particularly vulnerable.  Case – or cases – in point, in the span of a decade several large-scale projects have been brought to the forefront that will have direct impacts on salmon, other fishes and wildlife; these include the Pebble gold and copper mine, the Chuitna coal mine and Watana Dam on the Susitna River.  Although ardent supporters of these projects typically downplay the negative consequences associated with each activity, it would be hard for them to honestly argue that such ecologically disruptive actions would not harm aquatic resources in a substantial way…but some still do.

The cumulative effects of widespread habitat degradation and impaired water quality would not only threaten our Native Peoples’ way of life as it relates to food security, but also disrupt ecosystem integrity during a time when many natural systems are already feeling the pinch of global environmental change.

One of the topics that drew the most interest over the two-day meeting was House Bill 77; it was not only dealt with on an individual basis but also brought up time and time again during several of the other topic sessions.  This is a bill that, unless you follow natural resource issues, you probably haven’t heard of it.  The bill was sponsored by the House Rules Committee at the governor’s request and intended to streamline the permitting process.  It was first brought before the House of Representatives in 2013, undergoing a fast-track process but eventually fizzling due to strong and determined opposition.  However, it supposedly is one of the Governor’s top priorities for this upcoming session and strongly supported by those in favor of unfettered development.

In promoting this bill, Governor Parnell said, “Alaskans deserve a fair and efficient permitting process.  One that creates more job opportunities, and that is exactly what our bill provides. I am pleased the Alaska House of Representatives passed this legislation promoting responsible resource development.”  BBT

Why is it so contentious?  Here is an excerpt from the bill: Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the commissioner may authorize an activity on state land by the issuance of a general permit if the commissioner finds that the activity is unlikely to result in significant and irreparable harm to state land or resources.

At issue is what the Commissioner would consider significant and irreparable to be…and remember, the Commissioner serves at the behest of the Governor.  By bestowing this power to the Commissioner, it would circumvent the public process and give the Commissioner unprecedented power.

But HB 77 goes way beyond those malevolent shortcomings, however.  Here is what is currently stated on DNR’s website pertaining to the water rights process or reserving water for beneficial instream uses:


Note that within the yellow box it says, “Private individuals, organizations…….” can apply for reservations of water.  That would no longer be the case under HB 77; the bill would strip individuals and tribes from the process to where only government agencies (including local governments like boroughs) would be able to secure water rights.  And if that’s not bad enough – the bill would also rescind all existing instream flow water rights applications submitted, accepted and awaiting approval by tribes and private individuals; some of which have been pending for some time.

The impetus behind preventing tribes, non governmental organizations (NGO’s) and private individuals from acquiring water rights is most likely due to the fact that all of those entities have submitted applications to protect fish and other aquatic resources through instream flow reservations where immense job-creating projects are proposed – and obviously goes against the Governor’s agenda of unimpeded economic growth.  Just this past week a court ruling showed how political influences can sway natural resource management and thwart true “responsible development” when a judge ruled that DNR was negligent in processing water rights applications.  In this case it was a conservation group seeking protection on the Chuitna River…but we’ll talk about that in a minute.

Developing regional economies is important, and finding cleaner and cost effective energy sources is of the utmost importance these days…and no where more obvious than rural Alaska.  But to cloak HB 77 in the positive light of “responsible development” is…well, irresponsible.  Those three massive projects mentioned above would either divert vast quantities of water or significantly alter flows and/or habitat in some of the state’s most productive salmon rivers.  To show the scope of the potential environmental impacts, two of the projects would be among the largest of their kind in the world!

One of the separate topics where HB 77 popped up was the discussion on the proposed Watana hydroelectric dam that is slated for the upper Susitna River.  The dam would be 700 feet high and would inundate some Cook Inlet Regional Corporation lands and disrupt subsistence activities of the Chickaloon Native Village and other tribes; at that height, it would be one of the largest dams in the northern hemisphere and the eighth largest in the world.  The discussion focused on maintaining adequate flows to sustain riparian resources and maintain channel integrity while not degrading aquatic habitat for the salmon and other fishes that use the river; the Susitna is in the top five of Alaskan rivers as far as producing Chinook salmon.

Not too surprisingly, some dam proponents contend that impacts to Chinook salmon would be negligible (or beneficial as you’ll soon see) – claiming that relatively few salmon go beyond the proposed dam location.  And granted, most salmon spawning occurs downstream of the dam site and in the tributaries like the proponents claim.  But still, there will be impacts to anadromous fishes.  But we’re not only talking salmon here folks, there is a host of other species inhabiting the Susitna drainage, species like Bering cisco, Arctic lamprey, lush, round and humpback whitefish, longnose sucker, grayling, Dolly Varden, eulachon and others that interact to form a complex ecosystem.

Just imagine how drastic fluctuations in flow levels during the winter months when energy needs peak and substantially lower flows during the summer months might affect the fishes at various stages of their life, especially the vulnerable juveniles?  How about changes in sediment transport?  The dam will trap much of the sediment, gravel and wood that contributes to habitat complexity that is correlated with productivity.  It may not be obvious to the human eye, but for the aquatic organisms these changes will be significant; science has shown time and time again that altered systems are less productive to the native fishes.

Yet the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce had this to say in support of the dam, “The project will include mitigation measures to stabilize Susitna River salmon runs, as well as moose and caribou abundance. In fact, there are opportunities for improvement. At a minimum, the project has the ability to help manage river flows that are favorable to fisheries.”   Do you know what the definition of hubris is?  It’s excessive pride or self-confidence (you’ll see a little more of that in a minute).  Being a fish biologist, I must ask (somewhat cynically), “How did fish ever evolve so well over the eons without us human beings helping them along through our technological advancements?”

Here’s another pitch by the Fairbanks Chamber: Once built, hydro projects can last 50-100 years with very low operating costs and without needing major replacement or repairs.  That again may be true, but one must ask what will happen at the end of that 50 or 100 years?  There are numerous large dams on the Colorado River in Arizona, the Glen Canyon being one, which are rapidly filling with sediment.  No one has yet figured out just how to avert a major quandary at the end of the Glen Canyon dam’s life.  One thing is for certain; whatever is attempted won’t be cheap or benign to the Colorado River’s ecosystem!

Here is a 1937 quote that resonates with me every time I hear proponents of a project discount the consequences of cavalierly tampering with nature, and it was by a fish biologist – no less – during a professional fisheries society meeting in regards to the proposed damming of the Columbia River: “That part of the industry dependent on the Columbia River salmon run has expressed alarm at the possibility of disastrous effects upon the fish through the erection of the tremendous dams at Grand Coulee and Bonneville…Aside from the fish ladders and elevators contemplated, there is a program for artificial propagation set up which may be put into effect if the fish passing devices fail to meet expectations.  No possibilities, either biological or engineering, have been overlooked in devising a means to assure perpetuation of the Columbia River salmon”.

Is that not a classic example of hubris if there ever was one?  Well, today there is fewer than five percent of the historic wild run of salmon and steelhead returning to the entire Columbia River system (historically over 15 million anadromous fish returned annually to the Columbia).  Sadly, Pacific lamprey are not fairing well either, also dwindling from historical counts in the millions, then 400,000 in the 70’s down to 23,000 in 2010 CRTFC.  Unfortunately, salmon are held to a much higher esteem then the lamprey’s, so their plight pretty much goes unnoticed.  Similarly, sturgeon are impacted by the dams (among other things) – declining from 200,000 in 1995 down to 77,000 presently (Sturgeon).  As already noted, disruption of natural ecosystems generally wreaks havoc with aquatic species.        

HB 77 was then brought up during the discussions of two proposed mine projects – the Chuitna coal mine and Pebble gold and copper mine where direct impacts to fish and fish habitat are certain to occur.  Yet here is what Bruce Jenkins, Chief Operating Officer of The Pebble Project, stated in the early planning stages of that project, “The time we’re taking now to gather information about land, water, fish and wildlife resources in the Bristol Bay area will ensure that we can protect these important environmental values and traditional ways of life in the future.”   Ensure, when dealing with protecting the environment, is another word that has a strong hubristic ring to it.

And the Chuitna project is another example where political influences are often not friendly toward the fishes and other wildlife dependent on intact ecosystems.  The previously mentioned judge ruled against the Department of Natural Resources in a water rights case involving the Chuitna Citizens Coalition stating, “That fee, along with Chuitna’s application, has disappeared into DNR’s files and the State’s treasury.  There is no excuse for DNR’s charging an application fee and then take no action on the applications.”  ADN

Yet, under HB 77 the Commissioner would be able to give a temporary water use permit to such development projects while other applications are pending as long as he did not feel that action would cause significant or irreparable harm.  That’s exactly what the Commissioner did this past summer when he approved a temporary water use permit to Buccaneer Alaska Energy for up to 50,000 gallons of water per day for its operation near Homer (Buccaneer).


Other topics discussed during the conference included the use of chemical dispersants during oil spill cleanups like occurred during the Macondo mishap in the Gulf of Mexico.  Dr. Riki Ott, Dr. John French, Diane Wagenbrenner and Tom Lakosh, all familiar with the Exxon Valdez spill presented studies that showed how future spills in Alaska will likely have grave consequences if treated with dispersants.  They noted that the chemical components in the dispersants can be more toxic than the oil itself.  The Clean Water Act mentioned above calls for removal of the oil, not dispersing it into the environment; consequently, there are mounting concerns over effects that are still showing up three years later in the Gulf.  For a comprehensive look at the ramifications of using dispersants and other options, go to and


Lastly, genetically modified foods (GMOs) was an agenda topic, with the concern for salmon stealing the show.  You may have heard Senator Begich or Representative Murkowski refer to Frankenfish in their newsletters because the federal government is considering allowing fish to be the first genetically modified animal approved for consumption by humans; everything allowed so far has been plants.  It might surprise you to learn that currently 90% food of all crops grown are modified in one way or another (e.g., corn, soy, wheat, etc.).

Genetically engineered fish have growth hormone genes injected into fertilized hatchery eggs that cause the fish to grow four times the rate of natural fish.  The most common species this has been done with include Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout and Arctic char.  One concern with salmon is that these modified fish could escape ocean captivity and breed with wild ones, tainting the gene pool to where the result is a population of fishes that is less fit for the natural environment and the overall loss of the natural wild population.


During this past week’s conference, I occasionally flashed back 12 or more years to when I moved to Alaska as the first fish biologist that the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge ever had.  Right away I was hearing about potential large-scale development projects and other pressures on aquatic resources that were too reminiscent of what I’d seen in Idaho and Wyoming (Pebble was not on the radar screen yet).  And the political jostling that I witnessed over efforts to protect the salmon and steelhead from ongoing and proposed logging, grazing and mining impacts was no different than what I saw when I headed northward in 1998…and see only getting more pervasive in our fair state today.

After moving to Bethel it didn’t take long until I began giving presentations during professional fisheries meetings – Human Nature, Human Influences – Are Alaska’s Aquatic Resources Really That Different? being the title of my preachings.  Much to my surprise many of my colleagues questioned my assertion that many of Alaska’s fishes were in trouble – some perceiving me as Chicken Little or a preservationist.  Many insisted that somehow Alaska was different, that we didn’t have the same concerns that the lower 48 did.

But I wasn’t alone with my concerns; at least a few other biologists had similar apprehensions.  Robert Armstrong published Alaska’s Fish: A Guide To Selected Species in 1996 in which he wrote the following paragraph – incorporating Ray Troll’s appropriate artwork:


Now, more than a decade later, many of those same biologists who pooh-poohed me know exactly what I was talking about; some even turning into environmental advocates because they know what is at stake.

I’m not proclaiming to stop all development, but Alaskans have got to realize that these large-scale projects, and even smaller ones, usually have some impact and often contribute to cumulative effects.  As I said, many of the same pressures that caused the demise of the anadromous fish populations in the Columbia River and other lower 48 streams are at work here in Alaska.

Some may not be obvious, but pressures to push habitat-disrupting projects through in the name of job creation without realistically assessing impacts are escalating.  We mustn’t proceed blindly in pursuit of economic growth – claiming that mitigation or collecting baseline data will ensure anything.

Another speaker at last week’s Anchorage conference was Larry Merculief who was, at one time, Alaska’s Commissioner of Commerce.  The Commissioner oversees the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development and has the charge of promoting, “a healthy economy, strong communities, and protecting consumers in Alaska.”


Mr. Merculief, a respected Aleut Elder from St. Paul, comes from a generation that was the last to have a total traditional upbringing where the entire village raised him.  His native name of Kuuyux  (pronounced Koo-yaax) goes back thousands of years and is given to only one person in each generation.  It was given to him when he was four years old and translates literally as an “arm extending from the body,” but means “carrier of traditional knowledge into modern times.”

He noted that subsistence is too complex to be put into one word…that it’s a way of life and that traditional knowledge cannot even adequately define it*.   He stated how words have power, but misrepresent the significance of subsistence resources; that in the western world the meaning of natural resources is based on exploitation.  He said that trees, water and plants are not natural resources in that sense; and that they’re not there just to take.

He cautioned that knowledge without wisdom is useless and pointed out how we live in a time when we have we have more knowledge than at any time in human history, yet things are getting worse.  To that he asked, “Where’s the wisdom?”.

He brought up the threats to the Native way of life – the increasing urban population that diminishes native people’s representation, increasing numbers of commercial, sports hunting and fishing endeavors, cuts in government funds, and above all – global environmental change.  He visited villages on the Y-K Delta where the salmon hanging on the racks were showing signs of environmental stress, exhibiting unusual lesions, and flesh falling from the bones.  More southerly villages near False Pass have reported to him anomalous behaviors of sea lions and beluga whales, all of which contribute to increased predation on the salmon.  He noted a hyper-concentration of negative impacts to salmon at a time when environmentally they’re struggling, so much so that some elders fear that salmon may disappear in certain parts of Alaska in 10 or 15 years.

Given Mr. Merculief’s background and position with the Department of Commerce with its focus on economic growth, he still shared many of the same concerns that others in the room did over impacts to the native way of life in regards to the subsistence life style and threats to food security from the proposed activities discussed earlier.

I don’t want to end this post on a sour note (not that this post has had anything uplifting in it), but one of the invited speakers, Walter Parker** who has been involved in Alaska politics and public service for over 50 years, was heard saying and the conference concluded, “I wasn’t this scared during the Cold War.”  Although a few people snickered, chills went up and down my spine.

I’ll end with a quote from Jacques Cousteau: We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.


Is there hope and what can be done?  Pay attention to these issues and get involved.  I suggest that all villages write a resolution denouncing HB 77 and send it to your legislators for it diminishes our ability to protect not only what is near and dear to us…but vital to the way of life here in Alaska…especially rural Alaska.  It’s the responsible thing to do.

* As I was finishing this post up, I was listening to the AFN conference.  Nelson Angapak, AFN’s Keynote Speaker from Tuntutuliak, corroborated what Mr. Merculief said.  He said that in the Yupik culture there is no exact word for subsistence, but it means striving or trying to live and that subsistence hunting and fishing is what keeps our people alive – physically, mentally, emotionally and spirituality.  He noted that his People have a general term for fish – neqa – that literally means food when we talking about hunting or fishing activities.

** Walter Parker has spent 56 years working on the transportation, telecommunications, and resource problems of Alaska and the Arctic.  He is presently a member of the North Pacific Research Board, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, and the Environmental Preparation, Prevention and Response Working Group of the Arctic Council, and he chairs the Circumpolar Infrastructure Task Force for the Arctic Council and the Northern Forum.  He has held many a state, federal, and local positions in government, the most prominent being Chair of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission and State Chair of the Joint Federal/State land Use Planning Commission for Alaska.

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