EPA announces Recommended Determination for Bristol Bay; one step away from finalizing Clean Water Act protections

Recommended Determination marks the furthest step reached in the Clean Water Act 404(c) process, supported by record numbers of Bristol Bay residents and Alaskans 

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took an important step toward safeguarding Bristol Bay’s fisheries, communities, and economy by deploying the authorities of the Clean Water Act to protect the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska. The agency announced a Recommended Determination for the headwaters of Bristol Bay that could prohibit and restrict mine waste in rivers, streams and wetlands of the North and South Fork of the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek.  

“EPA did the right thing today. Bristol Bay is the world’s finest salmon fishery. The vast majority of local Alaska Native villages and sportsmen and women across America want to see it protected. Thanks to EPA for applying common sense to a common problem for the common good,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “We thank the EPA for their commitment to carrying out the Clean Water Act 404(c) process for Bristol Bay and honoring the wishes of the affected Alaska Native villages. We urge Administrator Regan to finalize the protections for Bristol Bay as soon as possible.” 

“We are excited to see this important step happen and won’t let our guards down until these safeguards are across the finish line. It would be fantastic to start 2023 with the final approval of these protections. So many Alaskans, like myself, that depend on Bristol Bay’s salmon and clean water, need certainty that the resources that sustain us won’t be threatened by incompatible development,” said Brian Kraft, president of the Katmai Service Providers and owner of two Bristol Bay sportfishing lodges.  

“The Recommended Determination is a big step forward in a process that Alaskans have championed for more than a decade,” said Nelli Williams, Alaska director for Trout Unlimited. “We thank the EPA for continuing to move forward with Clean Water Act 404(c) safeguards for the headwaters of Bristol Bay. We encourage the EPA to move swiftly to issue a Final Determination. The science and public support are overwhelmingly in favor of Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay.” 

The EPA’s Recommended Determination comes after its May 2022 Proposed Determination to protect the Bristol Bay watershed. The EPA received more than half a million comments, including a record number of comments from Bristol Bay residents and Alaskans, who supported the Proposed Determination and requested that EPA finalize protections as soon as possible. The EPA now has 60 days to issue a Final Determination or affirm, modify or rescind protections for the Bristol Bay watershed, including its world-class sockeye salmon fishery that broke the all-time record with more than 78 million sockeye salmon this summer.  

BACKGROUND ON CLEAN WATER ACT 404(c) BRISTOL BAY  

Local Tribes, and sport and commercial fishing groups, first requested the EPA to use the Clean Water Act to proactively protect Bristol Bay’s headwaters in 2010. After numerous rounds of scientific assessment and review, proposed Clean Water Act protections were released in 2014 but never finalized. In 2019, the EPA, under the previous administration, sought to withdraw the 2014 Proposed Determination—a sudden decision based on politics and without scientific justification. Trout Unlimited challenged the EPA’s decision as arbitrary and capricious and contrary to the Clean Water Act’s governing standard in court. In July, 2021, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of TU, finding that the EPA could withdraw a proposed determination only if the discharge of materials would be unlikely to have an “unacceptable adverse effect.” 

Following the lawsuit, EPA Administrator Regan publicly acknowledged the importance of clean water to the Bristol Bay region and committed to working towards protections for the fishery and the people who depend on it. In January 2022, the agency announced that it intended to issue a revised Proposed Determination by May 31, 2022, for Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. The revised Proposed Determination was released on May 25, 2022, triggering a 4-month long comment period and bringing in more than half a million comments in support of Clean Water Act protections. The EPA then extended its timeline to review comments and issue a Recommended Determination to December 2, 2022.  

During past public comment periods that sought input on Clean Water Act section 404(c) action in Bristol Bay, more than 4 million comments from Bristol Bay and Alaska residents, as well as others from across the country supported strong protections for the Bristol Bay watershed. 

Trout Unlimited, the nation’s oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization, is dedicated to caring for and recovering America’s rivers and streams, so our children can experience the joy of wild and native trout and salmon. Across the country, TU brings to bear local, regional, and national grassroots organizing, durable partnerships, science-backed policy muscle, and legal firepower on behalf of trout and salmon fisheries, healthy waters and vibrant communities.  In Alaska, we work with sportsmen and women to ensure the state’s trout and salmon resources remain healthy far into the future through our local chapters and offices in Anchorage and Juneau.

Katmai Service Providers represents 64 Alaska fishing, hunting, bear viewing and tourism businesses that operate in the Bristol Bay region. The group is dedicated to resource protection through stewardship, promoting public access, fostering cooperation among users, participating in future development planning, promoting safety and education and enhancing Katmai National Park recreational activities. Brian Kraft is the president of the KSP and the owner of two sportfishing lodges in southwest Alaska, one in Igiugig, Alaska and one near Dillingham, Alaska.  

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