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Washington State Protects Some Of Its Most ‘Outstanding Waters’

First use of special conservation tool will benefit people, ecosystems, and wildlife

Washington state is braided with rivers and streams, each of which helps wildlife and people thrive, contributing to ecosystem resilience. In a nod to that irreplaceable value, on Dec. 18 the Washington Department of Ecology announced the designation of hundreds of miles of the Cascade, Green, and Napeequa river systems as Outstanding Resource Waters (ORWs). This marks the first time that the state has enacted ORW designations, a tool that is reserved for areas worthy of special safeguards and that is available to Tribes and states pursuant to the Clean Water Act. 

ORW designation mandates the state’s highest level of water quality protection. In the case of these waterways, it will preserve wildlife habitat and sources of clean drinking water, along with places for current and future generations to fish, hunt, and enjoy other outdoor recreation activities. Here are some of the specific reasons the state took this action now.

Cascade River

A close-up photo captures the head of a swimming salmon—with deep red, earthy green, and dark hues, accented by light freckles. The backs of numerous other salmon, all crowded together, are visible immediately behind.
Endangered coho salmon travel through rivers and waterways across Washington during their epic migration from their spawning grounds to the sea and back. This includes the Cascade River, a tributary to the mighty Skagit River. Salmon are also a critical food source for the endangered southern resident orca whale population.

The newly protected portions of the Cascade River and its tributaries are in the heart of the North Cascade mountains. The Cascade flows into the Skagit River, which provides 30% of the freshwater input into Puget Sound. Additionally, the Cascade provides critical salmon habitat and places for people to recreate and supports local jobs and businesses.

A shallow stream runs through a hilly landscape, with brush on the near bank and forest on the far bank.
The Green River, located in the valley of the same name, was altered by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. It is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts to hike, fly-fish, hunt, ride horseback, mountain bike, camp, and more. 

The protected waters of the Green River system include segments that originate in Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The watershed in the Green River Valley is culturally and spiritually significant to the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. The land is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property of both Tribes.

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