Andy Mack, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources

Andy Mack, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources

Andy Mack: How I made my decision on Chuitna

I’ve issued a decision in a closely-watched case regarding water rights in the Chuitna River watershed.

Misinformation is easy to spread and hard to correct. In recent weeks, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to discuss this case — and its implications for property ownership and management of our water resources — with many Alaskans.

My personal experience is rooted in Cook Inlet and catching fish. I understand the concerns of those who believe a coal mine in this watershed would be a bad fit for Cook Inlet. But this case was not so much about developers and conservationists.

In essence, we’ve hit a snag that has little to do with many of the issues raised by the litigants. The unintended consequence of issuing a water right — called an instream-flow reservation — in this particular case could be to limit or eliminate the value of Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority-owned lands managed to generate income to support Alaska’s mental health programs. I do not believe that was their intention, but it surely has become a potential outcome.

A little background is needed for those unfamiliar with Alaska Mental Health Trust lands. In 1982, advocates for Alaskans with mental health disabilities filed a class action suit asserting the State of Alaska mismanaged trust land without compensating the trust. They won their case, and it is clear that the state has a statutory, fiduciary obligation to manage these lands for the benefit of trust beneficiaries.

Income from trust lands provides funding for services to roughly 72,000 Alaskans suffering from mental illness, addiction, Alzheimer’s and dementia, developmental disabilities, and traumatic brain injuries. Trust lands were specifically selected for the potential value to fund these services, which the Trust helps fund to the tune of roughly $20 million a year. With state budgets tight, the revenue generated is very important for services.

Not only does the State of Alaska have a legal obligation to the Trust, it has a moral obligation to ensure its success. Alaskans with disabilities are counting on the Trust and the State of Alaska to provide important services. To ensure I understood the impact of any decision, the Trust described in writing the potential impact of millions of dollars of revenue to its beneficiaries.

My recent decision was rooted in Alaska statutes that allows anyone — Alaskans or not — to obtain an instream flow reservation on state waters. This means certain quantities of water, approved by DNR, are “reserved” and cannot be used for other purposes.

Some have said this decision is precedent setting and that DNR has never granted a reservation of water to a private group. That is no longer true. Last year, under my leadership, DNR issued four reservation of water certificates to the Nature Conservancy of Alaska within the Lower Talarik Creek watershed. Tens of thousands of sockeye salmon, as well as other anadromous and resident fish species, spawn in the Lower Talarik each year. The creek also happens to be downstream of Pebble — Alaska’s most controversial resource development project.

The Walker-Mallott Administration has been clear in its opposition to the Pebble project. We will not authorize a project that will endanger the Bristol Bay fisheries.

In deciding whether to reserve water, DNR must address certain criteria, including whether issuing the reservation is in the public’s best interest and whether it is necessary to issue the reservation to the exclusion of other possible uses of that water.

We no longer have a coal project moving forward on Trust lands in the Chuitna watershed. No developer is currently seeking to remove any water in the watershed. There is no current competing use of this water or associated impact to its fish.

While the Trust has identified coal development as a potential use of the Trust lands in this watershed it also sees an opportunity for other future uses – natural gas exploration, commercial guiding, and projects to mitigate carbon emissions and wetlands loss, to name a few.

I believe that there are possible solutions to satisfy all parties. We just need everyone — DNR, the Trust, and conservationists — to come together and work collaboratively.

In my position as Natural Resources Commissioner, I must consider the consequences of any decision that involves the management of state lands and waters.

Let me be clear. There has never been a better time for opponents of coal mining to bring alternative project proposals to the table that meet the Trust’s obligation to its beneficiaries and also protect the local fisheries.

My decision does not close the door on future proposals to protect the fisheries in the Chuitna watershed. My door is open. I am eager to work with all parties who have ideas.

Andy Mack has served as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources since July 2016.

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