Washington State Protects Some of Its Most ‘Outstanding Waters’

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

Navigate to:

Washington State Protects Some of Its Most ‘Outstanding Waters’
A whitewater kayaker runs down the center of a stretch of turbulent rapids on a river lined on both shores by large rock formations and dense, dark green forest.
A kayaker navigates the Cascade River in Washington, which offers some of the best whitewater kayaking in the state, with numerous Class IV and V rapids. Parts of the Cascade are now protected.
Thomas O’Keefe

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.
Brendon Cole

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.
Bryn Harding Cascade Forest Conservancy

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.

Napeequa River

An aerial photo shows a river snaking through hilly, green, undeveloped terrain.
The Napeequa River, a glacially fed river, provides critical habitat for salmon and other aquatic species that depend upon cold water for survival. As freshwater temperatures throughout Washington—and much of the world—rise because of climate change, it is increasingly important to protect rivers like the Napeequa.
Martin Bravenboer Flickr Creative Commons

The protected Napeequa River and its tributaries originate in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and because of that area’s remoteness, have so far been spared any impacts from development. The river’s cold, pristine waters provide critical habitat for the endangered spring chinook, threatened bull trout, and other species of fish. The Napeequa River feeds into the White River, which in turn flows into Lake Wenatchee, an outdoor recreation and tourism destination.  

New designations enjoy broad public support

Beginning in 2021, the Washington Department of Ecology hosted numerous public meetings—in person and online—to share information with local communities about the proposed designations. A 60-day public comment period yielded broad input, including support for the proposed designations from 240 elected officials, Tribes, conservation groups, hunters, anglers, outdoor recreationists, and local businesses. 

These designations come as freshwater ecosystems worldwide are declining at a faster rate than terrestrial and marine ecosystems because of climate change. This adds to the urgency to protect healthy river systems before they degrade, action that will benefit watersheds and the people and wildlife that rely on them. The Pew Charitable Trusts joins local Tribes, communities, small businesses, and others in supporting this important action to safeguard these waterways.

Brett Swift works on the U.S. conservation program. 

America’s Overdose Crisis
America’s Overdose Crisis

America’s Overdose Crisis

Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care

Sign up
Quick View

America’s Overdose Crisis

Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care

Sign up
Indian Paintbrush and Penstemon wildflowers and sunset over Mount St. Helens in Washington.
Indian Paintbrush and Penstemon wildflowers and sunset over Mount St. Helens in Washington.
Article

These Washington Rivers Merit Protection Now

Quick View
Article

Throughout Washington state, rivers sustain communities by providing clean drinking water, culturally significant areas, and places to fish, hunt, and enjoy other outdoor recreation. Yet, of the state’s 70,439 miles of rivers, only 197 miles are federally protected as wild and scenic, and no rivers have been designated by the state as Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW), which would provide critical protection.

The Cimarron River in southwestern Colorado’s Uncompahgre Wilderness. Rivers within designated wilderness areas in Colorado are protected as Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs) and preserved for future generations to enjoy, river, stream, grasses, water, mountains, hills, blue, sky, clouds, landscape, nature, wild, wilderness
The Cimarron River in southwestern Colorado’s Uncompahgre Wilderness. Rivers within designated wilderness areas in Colorado are protected as Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs) and preserved for future generations to enjoy, river, stream, grasses, water, mountains, hills, blue, sky, clouds, landscape, nature, wild, wilderness
Article

States Can Use 'Outstanding' Policy Designation

Quick View
Article

For millennia, healthy, free-flowing rivers across the U.S. have helped people, wildlife, and habitats thrive. But today, too many of those rivers are blocked by dams or threatened by pollution, development, and climate change

A rafter navigates rapids on the Arkansas River in Colorado’s Browns Canyon.
A rafter navigates rapids on the Arkansas River in Colorado’s Browns Canyon.
Article

Western Voters Strongly Favor More Protection of U.S. Rivers

Quick View
Article

In October 2022, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act turns 54 years old and the Clean Water Act turns 50. Both federal laws were established to safeguard this country’s precious freshwater resource. And while both statutes have helped do that to some degree, our nation’s rivers continue to face threats and degradation.

Boaters make their way through Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River, one of the longest rivers in the West.
Boaters make their way through Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River, one of the longest rivers in the West.
Article

New Maps Show U.S. Rivers With High Natural Values

Quick View
Article

Several Indigenous communities around the world speak of freshwater systems as “living waters,” testament to the life-giving and sustaining value of rivers, lakes, wetlands, bogs, and more.

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.