The Cascade River may receive additional environmental protections later this year.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, states can designate certain bodies of water as Outstanding Resource Waters, which gives them the highest level of water quality-based protection in the state.
The state is considering using the designation for the first time. Three rivers, including the Cascade, and one lake are being considered.
In 2021, a group made up of environmental and recreational organizations, nominated Soap Lake and the Cascade, Napeequa and Green rivers for designation as Outstanding Resource Waters.
This summer, the public will have a chance to comment on the proposed designations, and in the fall a final decision will be reached.
The Cascade River begins high up in the North Cascades and enters the Skagit River in Marblemount.
About 150 miles of the river and its named tributaries, all of which are located in Skagit County, would be included in the designation.
PROTECTION BEFORE DEGRADATIONWashington Wild Executive Director Tom Uniack said the Cascade River is being considered because it is in good shape.
There are no dams on the upper Cascade, and no permitted sources of pollution, timber harvests or mineral rights in the area, which helps prove that the area has not been degraded.
The nominated areas of the river are located within North Cascades National Park, national forest lands and wilderness areas.
A significant amount of the national forest lands are what are known as Inventoried Roadless Areas. Federal regulations on such areas limit timber harvesting and roads.
The Cascade River already has a Wild and Scenic River designation, which protects the mainstem and lower reaches of the north and south forks. The Outstanding Resource Waters protection would include areas not protected by the Wild and Scenic River designation.
Uniack, whose organization was part of the nominating process, said different designations protect in different ways. Dams, for example, can still be present in wilderness areas. Logging and mining can still take place in some Wild and Scenic River areas.
The Outstanding Resource Waters designation is designed in particular to protect pristine or unique bodies of water from degradation.
“I think what’s exciting is that it’s really putting another conservation tool on our tool belt,” Uniack said.
“If you’ve only got a hammer and a screwdriver, you can probably get a lot of stuff done. But it might really be nice to have a wrench and a couple other things, right?”
For Uniack, it’s important to protect watersheds that are in good shape before they become degraded and require restoration.
“This is really about protecting what we have,” he said. “... You have to work to keep things the same.
“You want to do preventative medicine, so that you don’t have to be in the emergency room.”
Uniack said that as Washington Wild was talking to stakeholders, it heard concerns that giving the river an Outstanding Resource Waters designation would affect such activities as logging on state Department of Natural Resources land and private land that the river passes through near Marblemount.
Uniack said Washington Wild decided to focus the nomination on the upstream federal lands.
“We’re not trying to make a change in working forest DNR or private lands,” he said.
MEETING THE CRITERIA
The state Department of Ecology has determined the Cascade River meets the criteria for designation.
This includes being “pristine and located in protected areas; have both high water quality and regionally unique recreational value,” according to the nomination document.
Marla Koberstein, Ecology’s rule-making lead for the nominations, said the department is now in the rule development phase.
The department will look at current land uses, water quality, wildlife habitat, and stakeholder and implementation concerns. It will also look at the level of public support.
“We want to make sure that an (Outstanding Resource Waters) designation would be successful,” Koberstein said.
Public comment will be taken this summer.
If the designation goes through, any actions that require permits near the river would have to demonstrate they would not lower the water quality. Ecology can also assign the river to a second tier of the Outstanding Resource Waters designation, which allows for specific exceptions.
“It’s another layer that can really help preserve these areas and a way for the state to kind of formally identify, ‘What are these waters that are truly unique and truly outstanding in our state?’” Koberstein said.
For some whose use the river for recreation, the designation is a chance to protect a beloved river.
Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director of American Whitewater Tom O’Keefe said water quality is important to the recreational experience.
Boaters who spend prolonged periods of times in polluted water can be at risk of illness.
The Cascade River “feels very fresh and alive,” O’Keefe said. “... It’s a real gem up there in the North Cascades.”
American Whitewater is one of the seven organizations that nominated the river for designation.
“Where we have these places, let’s recognize and celebrate them,” O’Keefe said.
Scott Schuyler, a board member of Washington Wild and the policy representative for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, said he hopes an Outstanding Resource Waters designation would highlight the importance of the watershed along with providing additional protections from industry.
Both Uniack and Schuyler referenced a previous conflict over proposed mining in the Skagit River headwaters as an example of the threats to the Skagit River and its tributaries.
The issue was resolved last year when Imperial Metals Corporation surrendered its mining claims in the Skagit headwaters in British Columbia.
“Water is a precious resource, a very limited resource,” Schuyler said. “We have to do what we can.”
Schuyler said the Cascade River and its watershed are significant to the tribe. Members have historically fished in the river, and some still live along the river.
Marblemount was originally an Upper Skagit fishing village, said Schuyler.
Schuyler said that after the Boldt decision, a 1974 U.S. District Court ruling that reaffirmed tribal fishing rights, Upper Skagit tribal members have refrained from fishing in the upper watershed of the Cascade because of very sensitive fish stocks.
However, fish populations remain a concern. In 2021, spring chinook counts on the Cascade dipped even lower, Schuyler said.
“We need to act before it’s too late,” he said.
“Anything that we can do to protect (the Cascade River), we need to take a serious look at it.”
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