More U.S. Rivers Deserve ‘Outstanding’ Designation

State and tribal listings would benefit wildlife, habitat, drinking water sources, and economies

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More U.S. Rivers Deserve ‘Outstanding’ Designation
The Little Cimarron River
The Little Cimarron River runs through Colorado’s Uncompahgre Wilderness. Rivers in wilderness areas throughout the state are protected as Outstanding National Resource Waters and preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Bob Wick BLM

In many American communities, rivers irrigate the farms that feed families, quench people’s thirst—rivers are the source of more than two-thirds of the drinking water in the U.S.—sustain wildlife habitat, and provide an economic boost for communities. Yet only a very small portion of those waterways are protected from threats ranging from pollution to damming, which would wreck the water’s natural flow.

Increasing that percentage can happen in several ways. The most common tool is to designate waterways under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which currently covers less than 1% of river miles in the country. A less widely known, but also effective, tool is for states and tribes to designate Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs).

The Clean Water Act of 1972 authorizes the designation of ONRWs to protect outstanding waterways, maintain water quality, protect fish and other wildlife, and support recreation. But despite mounting evidence that many U.S. rivers are threatened by pollution, development, and climate change, states and tribes have used the ONRW designation only sporadically. For example, New Mexico hasn’t designated an ONRW in more than a decade, California has just two, and Washington has none. Oregon designated its first ONRW in 2017.

Now is the time to conserve our most valued freshwater sources for future generations, using all available tools. Here are just a few of the rivers worthy of ONRW designation.


Smith River
California’s Regional Water Quality Control Boards have authority to designate ONRWs but to date have done so for only two bodies of water: Lake Tahoe and Mono Lake. However, the state did initiate an analysis of the Smith River (above) as an ONRW but has not completed the effort. The Smith is a Pacific salmon stronghold.
Patty McCleary


Bear Creek Falls (above) near Telluride, is a popular hiking destination, while the creek is a source of drinking water for local
The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission can protect waterways as “outstanding waters” (OWs) if they meet specific quality standards; are a significant attribute of a Gold Medal Trout Fishery, national park, monument, wildlife refuge, or wilderness area; and have exceptional recreational or ecological significance. Bear Creek Falls (above) near Telluride, is a popular hiking destination, while the creek is a source of drinking water for local communities.
Cody Wellons Flickr

New Mexico

Upper Pecos River
The state of New Mexico can list waterways as outstanding if they are part of a national or state park, wildlife refuge or wilderness area; are state-designated special trout waters; have exceptional recreational or ecological significance; or are high-quality and haven’t been significantly modified by human activities. New Mexico farmers and ranchers use water from the Upper Pecos (above) to irrigate their lands and feed livestock, among the many reasons the state should designate the river as an ONRW.
Rachel Conn


The East Walker River
Officials in the Battle Born State are drafting a policy to protect ORNWs—what it calls Ecological or Aesthetic Waters. The state is assessing proposed criteria that would be appropriate to meet this level of protection, including whether the water has exceptional water quality conditions; has recreational, historic, scenic, or wilderness value; or is home to an endangered or threatened species, among other potential freshwater attributes. The East Walker River, a 90-mile tributary of the Walker River, is popular among anglers and boaters.
Warren Jackson Flickr Creative Commons


North Fork Smith River
Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality prioritizes outstanding designation for waters in national or state parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness; or that are already national wild and scenic rivers or state scenic waterways. The state designated the North Fork Smith River, which begins in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in southern Oregon (above), an Outstanding Resource Water—the state’s first—in 2017 due to its valuable habitat for salmon and recreational opportunities, including whitewater rafting.
Zachary Collier Northwest Rafting Co.


Cascade River
In Washington, waters are eligible for Outstanding Resource Water (ORW) status if they meet one or more of the following criteria: are in relatively pristine condition or have exceptional water quality, and flow through federal or state parks, monuments, preserves, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, marine sanctuaries, or estuarine research reserves, or are already designated as wild and scenic rivers; have unique aquatic habitat types, such as peat bog; have both high water quality and regionally unique recreational value; are of exceptional statewide ecological significance; or have cold water thermal refuges critical to the long-term protection of aquatic species. Many rivers in Washington, including the Cascade River (above) are known for their quality salmon and steelhead habitat.
Alan Cressler

The Pew Charitable Trusts looks forward to working with local partners, communities, and state governments to protect waterways that are essential to our nation’s natural, cultural, and economic vitality.

Nicole Cordan oversees river corridor work for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.

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