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Alaska House bill seeks highest level of state protection for Kuskokwim River

Gillnet fishing on the Kuskokwim River near Aniak.
Dave Cannon
Gillnet fishing on the Kuskokwim River near Aniak.

A bill recently introduced in the Alaska House by Rep. CJ McCormick (D-Bethel) calls for increased protections for the Kuskokwim River in line with federal Clean Water Act standards.

If passed, HB 357 could lead to the Kuskokwim River being designated as “outstanding national resource water,” also commonly referred to as Tier 3 designation. The designation aligns with federal Clean Water Act standards, prohibiting any new activities or expansion of existing activities that change water quality in any way.

According to the state, this has the potential to restrict a range of activities, including but not limited to motorboat traffic, the construction of septic systems and landfills, road construction, and resource extraction.

But McCormick said that the bill is aimed at ensuring long-term protection for the river and is not intended to restrict the activities of communities living along it.

“I’ve heard a lot of the concerns, but I can assure a lot of folks it’s not necessarily changing anything,” McCormick said. “It’s just ensuring that our water stays clean. So any sort of traffic that’s on the river right now, that’ll stay as it is.”

McCormick said that that even if the bill fails to move forward, he sees it as a conversation starter for the region.

“We’ll see where the bill goes, but I’m hoping at minimum it’s just a platform for folks from the Kuskokwim River to kind of get on the record and express some things that they felt like they haven’t really been able to,” McCormick said.

Tier 3 designation for the Kuskokwim River would be a first for Alaska waterways. Numerous other states and tribal entities have enacted the designations for portions of their waterways. In December 2023, Washington state approved its first-ever Tier 3 designations for several rivers.

While HB 357 doesn’t currently have a companion bill in the Alaska Senate, another bill, HB 95, does. That bill, introduced by Rep. George Rauscher (R-Sutton), would put the power to designate a body of water as Tier 3 in the hands of the Alaska Legislature.

While the responsibility for designating Tier 3 waters currently falls on the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), the agency has, as yet, been unwilling to exercise that authority. Six bodies of water in the state have been nominated for Tier 3 designation – all are still pending.

If the state is unable to come up with a formal designation process, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority to impose its own Tier 3 process on Alaska, though the state has previously said this is unlikely to occur. Former ADEC commissioner Jason Brune wrote in 2019 that informal conversations with federal regulators suggested “the guidance DEC has in place mitigates this risk.”

Gene McCabe, the acting director of the Alaska Division of Water, insists that there is a need for a legislative process.

“The department has asserted all along, it does not have the authority to designate a Tier 3 water body and that authority lies in the Legislature,” McCabe said.

Multiple bills throughout multiple state administrations have attempted to settle the Tier 3 issue. In response to public outcry, in 2016, then-Gov. Bill Walker walked back an attempt to give the Legislature final authority, calling for further dialog with tribes and stakeholders.

In the years that have followed, tribes and conservationists have generally called out attempts to give authority to lawmakers as politicizing what should be a science-based decision-making process.

On the other side, industry advocates like the Resource Development Council for Alaska have called for legislative control. The group says that Tier 3 designations have the potential to become a tool for anti-development interests and strongly supports current bills to give authority to the Legislature.

All of this puts HB 357 in an awkward position. Rep. McCormick insists that his bill is not taking aim at industry and is simply intended to preserve the Kuskokwim River for future generations.

“I don't think I would introduce something that would be anti-development, that would be really kind of self-sabotaging,” McCormick said. “The overall effort here is just to make sure that Kuskokwim stays clean.”

While the bill to protect the Kuskokwim River is unlikely to solve the complex and divisive issue of Tier 3 designation in Alaska, it could ultimately give the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta a greater voice in the conversation.

According to the state, waterways currently nominated for Tier 3 designation include:

  • Bristol Bay
  • Teejindrik (Chandalar) River
  • Draanjik (Black) River
  • Chilkat River
  • Koktuli River
  • Yakutat Forelands
Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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