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Conservation group presents Chilkat River Tier 3 discussion


February 8, 2018

A scientist from a regional conservation group presented information to a crowd of more than 100 people about what a Tier 3 designation might entail for the Chilkat River.

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council staff scientist Guy Archibald spoke for about an hour in the American Bald Eagle Foundation Saturday evening. People in support and in opposition of the designation attended the event and asked questions.

Tier 3 designated waters, also known as Outstanding National Resource Waters, add a level of protection that would prohibit “new or increased discharges that would lower or degrade the existing water quality unless they were temporary or limited,” according to an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation fact sheet.

Federal water quality standards regulations require states to have anti-degradation standards. However, states have the authority to decide which waters are protected. Alaska is still developing guidelines for that designation process, a process that’s been crawling along since 2009.

Four Tier 3 waters have been nominated since 2010, including the Chilkat River.

The Chilkat River is currently designated Tier 2—high quality waterways where natural water quality is better than the threshold necessary for designated uses. Water quality can be degraded for necessary and important social or economic development, according to state guidelines.

“Tier 3 would only restrict point source treated effluents that you had to go get a permit for,” Archibald said. “It would only restrict permanent or long-term degradation. Whatever you’re doing up that river, if it doesn’t come out the end of a pipe and it doesn’t require a permit and you didn’t have to treat it, it does not affect that activity.”

Outboard motors, road run-off, snow plowing, salting and sanding are considered nonpoint source discharges, according to ADEC. Septic systems that discharge into a leach field, for example, are considered a land application and does not require and permit from the DEC, and would not be affected by a Tier 3 designation.

All current discharge permits regulated by ADEC will still be allowed, as well as the right to renew the permit.

“Temporary degradation is allowed for construction, river restoration activity, public safety measures like flood control and on and on, as long as that activity does not permanently degrade the water quality,” Archibald said.

Archibald also addressed what he described as ADEC’s “capricious and arbitrary” water testing methods.

“When they issue a discharge permit now and they look at how much it’s going to be diluted, they test the effluent, the discharge,” Archibald said. “They run it through a computer model. They don’t go out and test the water.”

ADEC has seen significant budget cuts during the past several years.

Mike Binkie asked why Archibald and SEACC were pushing for Tier 3.

“What is Tier 3 going to do for the Chilkat River that Tier 2 hasn’t already done and what is the push,” Binkie asked.

Archibald questioned why local mining representatives oppose Tier 3 if they’re sure they won’t pollute the water. He cited a 2006 study, which in part looked at 26 acid-generating mines and their effects on nearby watersheds.

“Of the mines they knew were acid-generating deposits, 89 percent of those mines ended up polluting the water despite all the mitigation,” Archibald said. “Yes, mining is a threat to water quality and salmon.”

Another attendee cited the costs communites bare, because they’re required to test the water, because the state won’t.

Gershon Cohen, project director for Alaska Clean Water Advocacy, told the crowd why he’s pushing for the designation.

“One of the things that’s concerning to people, and concerning to me, is that we would damage the river to the point where we can’t just go, ‘Whoops, that’s a shame,’” Cohen said. “We could end up putting certain things in the river that will be things we cannot recover from.”

Charlotte Olerud asked about discharging pure water.

“If I have a discharge permit and the water I’m putting back into the system is pure of all minerals, purer than the water I’m putting it into, am I degrading the water?” Olerud asked.

Archibald said de-ionized water, water that’s completely clean, might be prohibited because it’s damaging to aquatic life. He said he’s often asked what constitutes a healthy salmon stream.

“I say ‘Go to a healthy salmon stream and test the water,’” Archibald said. “That’s what constitutes healthy salmon water. If you change those constituents too drastically you could have negative effects.”

The Chilkat Indian Village applied for the Tier 3 designation for the Chilkat. The tribe is also paying to test the water quality, at three different points in the river, in an effort to obtain baseline data. The tests initial results should be released within the month, a tribal member said.


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