Good News for Chuitna Salmon
I present to you, in the middle of chaos and frustration… (drum roll please)… a small victory!
In a decision issued February 25, 2013, the Alaska Superior Court ruled that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) violated its own rules by denying Alaskans’ their right to keep water in streams to protect wild salmon runs. The decision in Chuitna Citizens Coalition vs. Dan Sullivan, Commissioner, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, takes on special importance as the Alaska legislature considers bills introduced by Governor Parnell (HB 77/SB 26) which will strip Alaskans of their right to protect “instream flows,” which are designed to ensure salmon have enough water to survive before other out-of-stream uses are permitted.
“It’s sad when Alaskans have to spend time and money to sue our own government to protect our salmon fisheries,” said Ron Burnett of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, a group of property owners, fishermen and hunters concerned about protecting wild salmon habitat in the face of proposed large-scale coal strip mining in Upper Cook Inlet. “Governor Parnell has repeatedly promised Alaskans he would never ’trade one resource for another,’ but his words and his Administration’s actions are two different things.”
In 2009, the Chuitna Citizens Coalition filed for instream flow rights on Middle Creek, which supports wild runs of Chinook and Coho within the Chuitna River Watershed. DNR accepted these applications but refused to process them. Later, in 2011, DNR approved Temporary Water Use Permits (TWUP) in a mere 8 days allowing PacRim Coal to remove up to 305,000 gallons from the same waterbody without any consideration of the pending request for instream reservation of water. Chuitna Citizens appealed the TWUP decision, arguing DNR had to consider the water they had requested for fish habitat before giving water to PacRim.
DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan summarily dismissed Chuitna Citizens’ claims, and Chuitna Citizens was forced to takes its case to Alaska Superior Court, represented by the public interest law firm Trustees for Alaska. The Alaska Superior Court overturned the DNR decision, holding that DNR had to consider Chuitna Citizens application to keep water in the stream for fish.
“This decision makes it clear the State of Alaska is not in the business of protecting salmon habitat and the countless families and jobs that salmon support throughout the state,” said Judy Heilman of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition. “Instead of following the rules and protecting salmon habitat, we expect Governor Parnell now to change the rules of the game, or to change the law completely, so Alaskans are prevented from protecting their salmon resources.”
The Alaska Legislature is now actively considering bills introduced by Governor Parnell (HB 77 & SB 26), which will ax the entire statutory scheme for instream flow protections by stripping away the rights Alaskan Tribes and residents currently have to protect water in streams for salmon.
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