State considers relaxing rules for obtaining water rights

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has a backlog of more than 600 applications for water rights and wants to relax its rules for issuing them.

Bob Loeffler, who heads the state Division of Mining, Land and Water, said the backlog poses a serious problem.

''I certainly have farmers, homeowners and developers calling me and saying, 'I can't develop if I can't get a water right. And you're telling me that you're not going to work on my water right, in some respects, for a couple of years,''' he said.

The Legislature last year provided money to boost water management staff from four to nine full-time positions.

Department officials promised to become more efficient. The department's resulting proposal was released last week for public comment. The main change is a clause that says some applications no longer must undergo a full water right review.

Under the clause, applications might be exempted if the desired water use is less than 5,000 gallons per day from a designated fish-bearing stream or less than 50,000 gallons a day from another source.

Should the application meet those requirements, and the state makes a preliminary ruling that the plan would not be harmful, the proposed use could be authorized immediately.

Those swiftly approved uses would not, however, be considered a formal water right that could be transferred when land is sold. People who want that full right can request a subsequent complete department review.

Loeffler said the proposed regulation changes will benefit both applicants and the environment.

By instituting a form of triage to more quickly dispense with innocuous applications, the department can focus its time on the cases where there is indeed a water allocation or environmental concern, he said.

It should also cut back on the problem of people breaking the law out of impatience with the time it takes for the state to issue a water right, he said.

''When government can't function, people say they are going to do it anyway,'' Loeffler said.

In Alaska, because water is a common property resource, landowners do not have automatic rights to ground or surface water. Anyone who takes a ''significant amount'' of water without receiving department authorization can be found guilty of a misdemeanor.

Mara Bacsujlaky of the Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center said that while a quick review of the proposed regulatory changes did not raise urgent alarms, she wants to research the proposal.

The department will take public comment on the matter until Oct. 22.


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