DEC works to keep waters clean

Voices Of Alaska

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2003

Alaska is fortunate. We have abundant clean water and broadly based citizen support for protecting this resource. The Department of Environmental Conservation is steward of Alaska's water resources at every stage of the water cycle from raindrops to ocean.

DEC fulfills the state's responsibilities under the national Clean Water Act. Its two goals are clearly stated in the first chapter: to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters. Working in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency, DEC develops and implements a program to achieve these goals.

The state's program responds to both goals by measuring water quality against specific criteria for such characteristics as dissolved oxygen, turbidity and pH, and for the presence of chemical or metal contamination. If a body of water is polluted, we develop a plan to restore its original quality. To prevent pollution from occurring we control discharges into the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency funds much of our work. Together we negotiate a plan of work describing what we intend to accomplish. We have many tools at our disposal to protect Alaska's waters. We use restrictive permits to control direct discharges from sewage treatment plants, factories and seafood processing plants. We require best management practices to be followed in snow removal, storm water collection, construction and logging. Using these tools, we protect all waters, even Alaska's most remote.

If water is polluted it cannot sustain fish and plants. We cannot drink it, wade in it, boat on it, harvest shellfish from it or use it for hatcheries. Industrial uses that might contribute further contamination cannot be permitted on an already polluted waterway. One has only to ask residents of Sitka about the benefits of restoring an impaired water, such as Swan Lake. A previously unusable water body is once again swimmable and a valuable community asset. Our first priority must be to restore Alaska polluted waters to full use again.

Water quality monitoring helps us achieve the second goal of maintaining water quality. Samples allow us to characterize the quality of discharges into the water and the quality of receiving water. We have thousands of waters in Alaska and cannot hope to regularly sample each one. We must prioritize which waters to sample, focusing first on those that have been or are likely to be impacted by human activities.

We know that untreated sewage carries fecal coliform bacteria into the water. We know that storm water running over paved streets carries oil into adjacent drainages. We know that improperly discharged drycleaning fluids are toxic and persistent in water. We know that decomposing wastes in the water can rob oxygen. We know that ATVs can erode fragile stream banks, silting the water and interfering with photosynthesis.

Each citizen should be aware of their impact on Alaska's waters.

We will continue to work with citizens, the Legislature, EPA, local governments and industry to protect Alaska's waters. When human activity is the cause of pollution we will recommend controls and restrictions to protect Alaska's water quality.

Our water quality protection program must be tailored to the vast scope of our state. We must use all the information we have about water impacts and water quality to develop regulations and provide community guidance that will keep remote waters clean and restrict activities on polluted waterways to restore water quality.

We welcome and encourage interest in clean water, as we work to achieve our goals.

Ernesta Ballard is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

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