The Chilkat River as seen from Mount Ripinsky in summer of 2017. (Emily Files)

The Chilkat River as seen from Mount Ripinsky in summer of 2017. (Emily Files)

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is working to come up with a process for the nomination and designation of Outstanding National Resource Waters. In the meantime, the conversation about Tier 3 continues at the local level. It was addressed at a February meeting in Haines.

Lynn Canal Conservation and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council organized the event, which drew a packed room of Haines residents on a Saturday afternoon.

The topic: Tier 3 water classifications. That’s the highest level of protection available under the state’s degradation policy.

Guy Archibald is a staff scientist at SEACC. He led an information session and took questions.

“A Tier 3 just says, this is a water of such exceptional quality. Maybe not as far as its chemicals – such an ecological significance, that we much maintain its existing water quality, no matter what that is,” said Archibald.

Archibald said the ability to protect waters in this way should be a right.

“I would think, that in the state of Alaska, with 40 percent of the nation’s pure water, with the world’s largest sustainable wild salmon industry, that somewhere in this state is water so exceptional, so important to community and culture and economy, that it should not be polluted,” said Archibald, in response to an audience member. “And we should have the right to designate that. Communities should have the right to ask for it.”

Tier 3 nominations are pending for the Chilkat River near Haines, the Koktuli River in Bristol Bay, the Yakutat Forelands and the Chandalar River in Venetie.

The Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan nominated the Chilkat River.

Kimberly Strong is the tribal president.

“It isn’t something that we’ve entered into lightheartedly,” said Strong. “It isn’t something that we were doing out of disrespect for the people who want to see this kind of economy for the valley. We did it for the next generation. We do it because it’s the homeland of our people. It’s the essence of who we are.”

Vice President Jones Hotch Jr. spoke about the importance of the river and the salmon it provides.

Strong said the stakes are high.

“I do think sometimes, how could I be living in this world where there’s so much controversy on something that I believe is something that’s very simple – survival,” said Strong.

This nomination has been a complicated and controversial subject in Haines. Many people feel it could stand in the way of development and, in turn, hurt the economy.

“Why put more restrictions on this valley when the population is already depleted? You’re going to make it harder for jobs to come back,” said one audience member.

A potential mine in the Chilkat Valley is currently in the exploration stage.

Whether the Chilkat will actually get this designation is still unclear.

Law requires the state to have a process for nomination and designation of Tier 3 waters. And the Alaska DEC is still working on that.

In 2016, Governor Bill Walker introduced legislation that would have put Tier 3 decisions in lawmakers hands. But those bills were withdrawn after response from the public.

Last year, DEC held public meetings throughout the state to gather input on the process, and how residents want to see it handled.

In terms of what a Tier 3 designation would mean, there are a few key points.

As Archibald mentioned, Tier 3 water quality must be maintained and protected. That means new or increased discharges aren’t allowed if they would degrade the water. Temporary and limited change is okay if it doesn’t permanently impact the water.

According to the state, activities that don’t require a point source discharge permit generally wouldn’t be impacted by a Tier 3 designation.

That means it wouldn’t stop normal activities not currently regulated by the state.

And, currently permitted discharges would be allowed to continue – unless they are to be increased or expanded.