Water reservation rights need protection

A judge has ordered the Parnell Administration to start processing water reservations submitted by Alaska fishermen for the Chulitna River and nearby streams. This court decision is good news for Cook Inlet fishermen and residents.

Under former Commissioner Dan Sullivan, the Department of Natural Resources stalled, refusing to process Alaskans’ water reservation applications for four years. Sullivan claimed his agency didn’t have enough staff to do the work. Yet at the same time, DNR processed dozens of Temporary Water Use Permits as part of the administration’s work in support of the Pebble mine.

During the same time period, the administration found time and money to sue former first lady Bella Hammond and Constitutional Convention delegate Vic Fischer, Rick Delkittie, a subsistence hunter and fisherman from Nondalton who once worked on the Pebble project helping to restore the land and Violet Willson of Naknek, who had the first commercial set-net site in the Naknek River, dating back to 1954. Theirs was a public interest suit. But the judge would not allow Fischer to raise constitutional issues in the trial. Clearly, the state had enough employees to go after the plaintiffs for $1 million dollars, but too few to process water reservations for Alaska fishermen.

Water reservations sound complicated, but they are important for fishermen in our region. Under our state Constitution, individuals, tribes, and fishing groups can “reserve” water to protect salmon runs. These salmon runs, in turn, are the foundation of our multi-billion dollar fishing industry, which is Alaska’s largest private sector employer. The state should honor fishermen’s water reservations because they are important for our economy, our way of life and provide for a sustainable resource.

In January, we will have another debate about water reservations, as the Governor’s proposed bill HB 77 would eliminate Alaskans’ water reservations entirely. This bill, which was pushed by Commissioner Sullivan and Governor Parnell last year, would allow destruction of salmon streams that are important for our fishing industry. It is good news that courts have made the administration process fishermens’ water reservations, but next year we will have to defend water reservations from HB 77 and the politicians in Juneau.

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