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WA Wild Builds Coalition Calling for Outstanding Resource Waters Designation Under the Clean Water Act


Photo: Napeequa River Valley, Kyle McCrohan

Today, Washington Wild sent letters signed by a broad coalition of 137 sportsman groups, outdoor recreation groups, conservation and civic groups, elected officials, Brewshed® Alliance Members, and local businesses urging the WA Department of Ecology (Ecology) to designate three Washington rivers as Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) under the federal Clean Water Act. 

The Clean Water Act recognizes the unique value of waterways of exceptional water quality and provides an opportunity for states to identify waterways as Outstanding Resource Waters. The rivers being considered—the Cascade River (Skagit County), Green River (Skamania and Lewis counties), and Napeequa River (Chelan County)—represent outstanding state resources due to their extraordinary water quality, ecological, and recreational values. When a river is designated as an ORW, it needs to be maintained and protected from all degradation.

Although Washington has an abundance of high-quality waters in need of protection, to date, Ecology has not designated a single ORW. 

As impacts from development, pollution, and the climate crisis become increasingly more evident, protecting our high-quality rivers and streams is an essential investment for our future. Washington should join other states such as Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, to take advantage of this opportunity under the Clean Water Act to protect priority rivers. 

Photo: Green River, Lisa Parsons

Why Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) Designation is Important

Water is life. America’s rivers provide more than 66% of our drinking water supply, irrigate the farms that feed our families, sustain wildlife habitat, power our homes, transport goods, and are economic powerhouses generating billions of dollars and supporting millions of jobs. Yet only a very small portion of these critical waterways are protected from threats such as pollution and damming.

Protection for our rivers can come in many forms.

Perhaps the most common tool—despite only covering less than 0.5% of river miles nationwide—is to designate waterways under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Under this designation, which need not include the entire river and may include tributaries, these segments “…shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. …” By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams across the country have modified at least 600,000 miles or about 17% of American rivers.

A less widely utilized, but also effective, tool, is for states and Tribes to designate Outstanding Resource Waters.

The Clean Water Act recognizes the unique value of waterways of exceptional water quality and provides an opportunity for states to identify waterways as ORWs. While the Clean Water Act gives states the authority to make these designations, it does not provide a standard procedure, so ORW designation varies from state to state. ORWs are defined as high-quality waters that constitute an outstanding state resource due to their pristine water quality and statewide ecological importance and unique recreational value. Once a waterway is designated as a Tier III(A) ORW, it needs to be maintained and protected from all degradation.

Despite ever-increasing threats to our rivers, states and Tribes have used the ORW designation only sporadically. For example, New Mexico hasn’t designated an ORW in more than a decade, Oregon didn’t designate its first ORW until 2017, California has just two, and Washington has none.

Photo: Cascade River, Alan Cressler, USGS

Washington Wild’s Work Advocating for Oustanding Resource Waters Designation

As Washington State continues to grapple 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. Between the several letters we have sent regarding ORW since 2021, our coalition of supporters now stands at 144.

A Closer Look at the Cascade, Green, and Napeequa Rivers as ORW Candidates

The Cascade, Green, and Napeequa Rivers are incontrovertible candidates to be the first rivers to gain ORW designation in Washington. All three meet multiple regulatory criteria and are deserving of protection as river systems that are pristine and located in protected areas; have both excellent water quality and regionally unique recreational value, and have statewide ecological significance.

The Cascade, Green, and Napeequa Rivers provide clean, affordable, and accessible drinking water for communities. By protecting the source, we are ensuring the water quality of all who depend on these waterways downstream. 

Washington’s rivers and streams provide the foundation for supporting tribal treaty rights and lifeways of several sovereign tribes who have stewarded these lands since time immemorial.

These rivers are critical to the health and abundance of fish and wildlife species throughout the state and larger PNW region. Wild trout, salmon, and steelhead stocks are in a precipitous decline in almost all Western watersheds. We are in a desperate race against the impacts of a warming climate and other pressures. Wildlife including big game mammals and waterfowl are also being negatively impacted by climate change. We simply must do more to safeguard clean, cold water in our last best rivers and streams.

All three of these rivers provide numerous recreation opportunities for Washingtonians and visitors including fishing, boating, hiking, and camping. The Cascade River in particular provides one of the best settings in the state for whitewater kayaking. Outdoor recreation supports $26.5 billion in annual expenditures and 264,000 jobs throughout Washington State. 

Designation of these river systems would benefit Washington State’s people, its heritage, its economy, its wildlife, and its salmon. 

Read the Full Letters

To maximize the impact of our coalition, we decided to submit three separate comment letters grouping endorsements by 1) members of the hunting and angling community, 2) members of the outdoor recreation community, and 3) Washington stakeholders such as conservation and civic groups, elected officials, Brewshed® Alliance Members, and local businesses.