The Chilkat Indian Village is pursuing protections for the Chilkat River that would prohibit activities affecting the river’s water quality.

The village submitted a proposal to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council last week requesting the river be designated as an Outstanding National Resource Water, which protects waters of exceptional recreational, environmental or ecological significance and prohibits any degradation of the waterway.

“In the context of the (federal) Clean Water Act, it’s basically the highest designation protection level that is afforded a water,” said Department of Conservation Division of Water program manager Earl Crapps.

There are no Outstanding National Resource Water designations in Alaska. Other states including Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Mexico have awarded the designation, also called “Tier III” protection.

The village’s proposal cites the Chilkat River’s exceptional cultural, ecological, economic and recreational importance to the Chilkat Tlingits and the broader community.

“Our founding fathers chose this location because of its abundance of wild stock salmon and other natural resources. Those abundant resources have not only sustained our people for countless generations, but it also sustains the Alaska residents that make the Chilkat and Klehini River valleys their homes,” the proposal said.

How the village might acquire the designation is unclear. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, states are required to adopt policies that allow such a designation to be made. Alaska hasn’t.

“Currently, we do not have a process in place to have a nomination go through,” Crapps said.

The hole in regulations came to light in 2010 when the national conservation group Trout Unlimited and partner organizations nominated the Koktuli River for Outstanding National Resource Water designation, a move aimed at protecting it from development of the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine.

Timothy Bristol, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska director, said the state rejected the nomination because Alaska didn’t have any regulations or qualifications in place to determine if the river qualified.

“In essence we really caught the state with their pants down,” Bristol said. “The one positive that came out of that whole experience is we did an in-depth analysis of the Koktuli River and it did get the state off the dime, so to speak, to start working on a process.”

But five years later, the state still doesn’t have regulations in place, which Bristol speculated could put the state on “shaky legal ground” for addressing the village’s proposal. “The state needs to correct this problem,” he said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation released a package of Draft Antidegradation Implementation Method regulations in January 2014, which contained a proposed process for establishing Outstanding National Resource Waters.

DEC closed the 90-day public comment period in April, and DEC’s Crapps said the agency is working to edit the regulations, which will be put out for another round of public comment. Crapps said he didn’t know when that would happen.

In the meantime, the Chilkat Indian Village’s only recourse would seem to be lobbying the Alaska Legislature to introduce a bill that would designate the Chilkat River as an Outstanding National Resource Water.

“At this point the only recommendation I could give you is it would be like any other proposal for a law,” Crapps said. “They would have to propose that to a legislator and have the legislator then try to pick it up and make it a statutory designation for a Tier III water.”

Chilkat Indian Village Tribal Council President Jones Hotch Jr. said village representatives have been visiting Juneau to talk to legislators. “It’s to protect the river to make sure we get our wild stock salmon to keep spawning,” Hotch said of the proposal.

Hotch wouldn’t say what the village is trying to protect the Chilkat River from, and declined to comment on whether it was a preemptive protection effort against the potential development of the Constantine Mine.

DEC’s Crapps said mine discharge into an Outstanding National Resource Water is essentially illegal. “Usually mines will have some sort of discharge and if the discharge was to a designated Tier III water, that would basically be prohibited,” he said.

Former Fish and Game habitat biologist Ben Kirkpatrick, who sits on the Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council, urged the village to bring the proposal to the council for support. The council will discuss the proposal at its April 9 meeting.

“I think it was a good move from Klukwan’s perspective, because it lets people know they really care, and even if it likely won’t get enacted anytime soon, it makes a statement,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said he didn’t believe the designation would hinder or eliminate responsible development projects in the valley.

“You’re just saying as a community, ‘We value this river,’ so anybody who comes in here knows you better take care of this river,” he said.