While the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act may be the most utilized tool to protect our rivers, Washington Wild is also leading the conversation regarding Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW). A component of the federal Clean Water Act (1972), Outstanding Resource Water (ORW) designation allows states to identify pristine waterways that constitute an outstanding state resource due to their exceptional water quality, statewide ecological importance, and/or unique recreational value. Once a waterway is designated as such, it protects that river, stream, or lake from any future activities or development that would degrade water quality.
Although Washington has many eligible rivers, streams, and lakes in need of protection, the WA Department of Ecology has yet to designate a single ORW. Washington Wild believes this needs to change, as do our partners and local stakeholders.
As Washington State grapples with a booming population, the plight of our endangered salmon and orca, and the impacts of the climate crisis, now is the time to conserve our most valued freshwater sources for future generations, using all available tools.
ORW designation is consistent with the hundreds of millions of dollars that have already been invested in salmon recovery, river restoration, and ensuring clean drinking water. It is a critical step to protect what we have while we continue to invest in the hard work of restoring what we have lost, which is why Washington Wild is leading the charge to ensure Ecology does just that.
Alongside our partners, we have assembled a coalition of more than 240 stakeholders including elected officials, hunting and fishing outfitters, outdoor recreation groups, local businesses, Brewshed® partners, conservation organizations, and faith leaders.
A Closer Look at the Cascade, Green, and Napeequa Rivers as ORW Candidates
Since 2021, Washington Wild has played a key leadership role in a coalition that includes the Pew Trusts, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, American Whitewater, Wild Salmon Center, and Cascade Forest Conservancy. Our coalition spent a year reviewing two dozen potential candidates across the state with specific care taken to ensure transparency and local stakeholder input. Feedback from Tribes, hunting and fishing groups, key local elected officials, and recreation leaders addressed concerns and values associated with each potential nomination. Based on this feedback, the coalition ultimately settled on three rivers for nomination with each crafted to exclude private housing developments, industrial timber lands, and state trust lands operated as working forests.
The Cascade, Green, and Napeequa Rivers are incontrovertible candidates to be the first rivers to gain ORW designation in Washington. All three rivers—each flowing through protected areas—meet multiple regulatory criteria by exhibiting excellent water quality, providing unique recreational value, and having statewide ecological significance.
The Cascade River
149 miles of streams and tributaries in Skagit County
Already holding Wild and Scenic River designation, an ORW designation of the Cascade River would further protect against water quality degradation of this critical upper watershed beyond the prohibition of new dams. A U.S. Geological Survey monitoring station tracks flow and temperature on the Cascade River. The river is cold and clear, averaging roughly 42 degrees with low turbidity. A significant number of old logging roads and culverts have already been repaired, thus improving water quality and fish passage. The Cascade River provides excellent salmon habitat with Chum (spawning), Coho (rearing), Summer Steelhead, Winter Steelhead (spawning), Rainbow trout, Summer Chinook (spawning), Coastal cutthroat, Pink (spawning), Bull trout (rearing), Sockeye, and Spring Chinook all present. With such varied salmon and steelhead runs, the Cascade River is significant to upholding the treaty rights and lifeways for the Upper Skagit, Swinomish, and Samish Tribes. Flowing through North Cascades National Park, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and Glacier Peak Wilderness, there are a number of peaceful camping sites accessible by a gravel road that follows the river and is popular with hikers, whitewater paddlers, and recreational fishers alike.
The Green River
44 miles of streams and tributaries in Lewis and Skamania Counties
The Green River’s water quality is among the highest in the Toutle River subbasin, with very little developed or agricultural land, and no logging activity since the 1990s. With Summer and Winter Steelhead (spawning), Coho (spawning), Cutthroat, and Fall Chinook (spawning) all present, the Green is part of the North Fork Toutle Steelhead recovery plan and listed as a Wild Steelhead Gene Bank. Flowing through Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument, this area is of significant scientific and ecological value for the study of landscape recovery after a volcanic eruption with portions of the adjacent land also serving as riparian reserves for Spotted Owls. A unique and popular recreation destination, the area draws 500,000 hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians, and paddlers annually. As ancestral lands of the Confederated Bands and Tribes of the Yakama Nation and Cowlitz Indian Tribe, the Green River is of significant cultural importance.
The Napeequa River
35 miles of streams and tributaries in Chelan County
The Napeequa River is an excellent candidate for ORW designation as it flows almost entirely through the remote Glacier Peak Wilderness, which offers rare near-solitude and remarkable recreation opportunities for climbers, hikers, and paddlers alike. Boasting pristine water quality, glacier-fed, and due to the unique geological formations that define its heavily shaded river banks, the Napeequa will play a critical role in maintaining cool water temperatures downstream in the White River and Lake Wenatchee. White River Sockeye, one of the strongest Sockeye runs in Washington, spawn in the lower reach of the Napeequa, with the last 1.5 miles of the river listed as Critical Habitat for Threatened Bull Trout and noted as a significant sub-watershed for recovery of Endangered Spring Chinook. The Napeequa is also a unique source of glacial flour, a fine sediment transported downstream from glaciers, giving rivers and lakes that stunning turquoise blue color. Containing a wide range of minerals and a spectrum of trace elements, studies indicate that glacial flour may help to neutralize acidity, promote microbial activity, improve soil structure slowing soil depletion, and even be an important form of carbon sequestration.
ORW Designation Timeline
The process for Outstanding Resource Waters designation—which has not yet been attempted in Washington but has been successful in several other states such as Oregon, California, New Mexico, and Arizona—does not require legislative approval. Instead, it relies on an administrative decision following an eligibility confirmation of nominations and a public comment period held by Ecology.
- June 24, 2021 – the coalition formally submitted the three nominations for the Cascade, Green, and Napeequa Rivers.
- August 30, 2021 – the agency confirmed all three rivers’ eligibility and initiated a public process toward ORW designation.
- November 2022 – the first phase of the public process included two informational webinars. Concurrently, WA Wild coordinated three different comment letters signed by 137 stakeholders that we finalized and sent in mid-December.
- Summer 2023 – Ecology launched a 60-day public comment period, from July 18 – September 27th, TAKE ACTION TODAY!
- December 18, 2023 – Ecology officially announced its decision to designate all three rivers as Oustanding Resource Waters!
The Latest ORW News
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