Water and Water Rights

It stings as wind-driven snow, soaks as gentle rain and penetrates as thick fog. It piles up in fields of ice, fed by springs and river overflows during winter. In spring, its sparkling drops gather to flood the river corridors, washing gravel bars and nourishing plants. During summer, it courses through rivers and streams, the veins and arteries of the Refuge. Finally it reaches the coast, enriching the ocean with its load of minerals. All along the way, it provides life-sustaining habitats for invertebrates and fish; feeding, nesting and brood-rearing areas for birds; and refreshment for mammals, including people.

Water is the lifeblood of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Ensuring water quality and quantity for fish and wildlife resources is one of the purposes of the Refuge. But water quantity is limited, especially on the coastal plain - technically a very dry area. Less than five inches of precipitation falls there each year. In addition, compared to areas west, where surface water is plentiful, the coastal plain has few lakes, and they are shallow and unevenly distributed.

waterMost of the water available in summer comes from spring snowmelt. It pools on the surface of the land, soaking the tundra. The water doesn’t percolate through the soil, as it does in most places, due to permafrost, which underlies most of the area about a foot down.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has federal rights to water on the Arctic Refuge. These federal reserved water rights were granted for Refuge purposes by laws which established the area.

Although the Service has federal water rights, agency policy is to apply for state water rights through state procedures whenever possible. Between 1994 and 1998, the Service filed water rights applications with the State of Alaska for 140 lakes and 12 river segments on the Refuge coastal plain. Action on those applications is still pending. The quantity of water associated with those rights has not been determined. In accordance with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) the quantity will be an amount that will sustain the health of fish and wildlife and their habitats within the Refuge.

This process does not negate the Service's federal water rights. In fact, it helps the State and others know just how much water is needed to conserve Refuge fish and wildlife resources. This is important given the interest in other water-consuming activities on the coastal plain (ice roads, oil drilling, municipal needs).

While it awaits action on the applications and related needs, the Service continues to ensure that adequate water will be available long-term to sustain the wonderfully diverse fish and wildlife resources of the Arctic Refuge.