On October 15, 2013, the Superior Court ruled that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) failed to follow the law when it let water rights applications for instream flow reservations languish. The applications were filed by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition to protect a salmon stream in the Chuitna River Watershed proposed for the Chuitna coal strip mine. Trustees for Alaska sued to force DNR to process water rights applications that were filed in 2009. The court held:
Letting three applications languish over the course of four years with no action is not reasonable. Therefore, the Court finds that DNR has unreasonably withheld agency action on Chuitna’s applications.
The court also held that DNR violated Chuitna Citizens Coalition’s due process rights.
In February, Trustees for Alaska won a case in the Alaska Superior Court about protecting water for fish habitat. The Court ruled that DNR must consider pending applications for instream flow reservations when it allows other users to remove water from the same waterbody. These cases are important victories for protecting salmon habitat in the face of industrial water users, like the developer of the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine.
Since the filing of these lawsuits, DNR and Governor Parnell have sought controversial legislative changes that would strip citizens of the right to seek these instream flows to protect fish and wildlife habitats, as well as strip the public’s right to participate in many other aspects of resource development permitting. That bill, HB 77, passed the Alaska House last session. DNR is likely to continue to push for its passage in the Alaska Senate during the legislative session in 2014. Trustees for Alaska will continue to fight the passage of HB 77.