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News / Clark County News

Ecology protects Southwest Washington’s upper Green River, giving it, its tributaries the state’s highest level of protection

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 19, 2023, 6:03am

Southwest Washington’s upper Green River watershed and its tributaries now have the state’s highest level of protection from future water degradation.

The Washington Department of Ecology on Monday announced it designated four water bodies as outstanding resource waters that warrant special protections, the first time the state has taken this step. The upper Green River watershed in Skamania County is one of the three river systems to receive the most protective form of this designation, indicating it has “exceptional” water quality, as well as significant ecological and recreational value.

Any activities that would generate pollution are prohibited with minimal exceptions.

Green River drops from snowmelt on a ridge adjacent to Spirit Lake before flowing through Mount St. Helens’ foothills. Waters thread through old-growth forest that survived the volcano’s 1980 eruption, eventually meandering westward and emptying into the North Fork of the Toutle River in Cowlitz County.

American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, previously defined Green River as one of the nation’s most endangered waterways due to proposed metal mining near its headwaters at Goat Mountain.

New protections strengthen Vancouver-based nonprofit Cascade Forest Conservancy’s decadeslong campaign to end mining in the area, said Molly Whitney, the group’s executive director. Cascade Forest Conservancy was among seven groups, including American Rivers, that petitioned the state ecology department to confer the “outstanding resource water designation” to the water bodies. Ecology applied the same protective designation to river systems farther north, including portions of the Napeequa River in Chelan County and the upper watershed of the Cascade River in Skagit County.

A separate tier of protections now covers Soap Lake in Grant County, which are less stringent than the river systems’ though still mitigate water degradation. Activities there must meet extra requirements to ensure potential harm from wastewater is minimal, according to the ecology department.

Tribes, elected officials, hunters and fishers, businesses and nonprofit organizations collectively lauded the state Department of Ecology for the new designations.

Whitney said the Green River’s waters support the genetic diversity of wild salmon, as well as provide respite for foragers, hunters and backcountry explorers.

Changes were informed by years of public engagement, beginning in July 2021 as a part of Ecology’s triennial review. A flood of responses led the state ecology department to pursue outstanding resource water designations for key river systems. The process concluded in September after subsequent webinars, a string of public hearings and a final comment period.

Washington’s water quality standards limit pollution in rivers, lakes and other natural waterways by providing discharge permits and upholding regulations defined under the federal Clean Water Act of 1972.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer