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The Science | Why Oregon’s Outstanding Resource Waters designation should include the North Fork Smith’s tributaries and wetlands

Updated 7/13/2017 – The waters of the North Fork Smith and its tributaries are of the highest quality and unbelievably clear. But this is not just some random good fortune. It’s a reflection of the integrity of the river’s near-pristine watershed, an abundance of precipitation, and a unique geologic setting.

Today, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission is debating whether to accept the recommendation of the Department of Environmental Quality and designate the North Fork Smith River, which flows out of and through the greater Kalmiopsis region and into the Smith River National Recreation Area, as Oregon’s first Outstanding Resource Waters.

Baldface Creek
The exceptionally clear waters of Baldface Creek, a tributary of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River, are a reflection of its unique and intact watershed. Jon Parmentier photo.

The designation is actually for the North Fork Smith, it’s tributaries and associated wetlands. Here’s why this is such a farsighted and science based approach to protecting the high quality waters of the North Fork Smith River.

The art of seeing a river

I do not fish in the conventional sense but one of my favorite books is on the art of fly fishing, In The Habit of Rivers, Ted Leeson writes that:

“Every square millimeter of earth is a watershed, and a river is the most comprehensive expression of a landscape.”

He urges us to see a river as itself and as a whole—pointing backward to geology and atmospherics, history and evolution, and forward to insects and fish, hydrology, botany, and I would add water. To see a river as unique as the North Fork Smith takes some understanding of its most elemental components and their connectivity and function.

One of the wettest places on the West Coast

Most of the precipitation in this remote, rugged corner of Oregon and California falls as rain. Some runs off creating spectacular winter whitewater, especially in the California half of the North Fork Smith. But the rain, and fleeting snowpack, also infiltrates into an ancient faulted and fractured geologic feature that forms the river’s watershed. On the surface, this rugged, stark landscape is populated by an abundance of peridotite rock, gnarled pine and cedar, and more rare and endemic plants than almost any place in North America. But equally important is what’s out of sight.

The serpentine terrain of the North Fork Smith River watershed and the South Kalmiopsis may look like a desert, but according to Forest Service report, it receives 100 to 160 inches of annual precipitation.[2] Often rainfall totals exceed this amount. The Gasquet Mountain Mine draft Environmental Impact Statement says the Smith River watershed is one of the wettest places in the nation. During the 1981-82 water year, 240 inches of precipitation was recorded on Gasquet Mountain.[3]

North Fork Smith River Watershed
It may look desert-like but the watershed of the North Fork Smith River can receive 150 to 160 inches of annual precipitation. Barbara Ullian photo

A unique hydrogeologic setting

Throughout much of the North Fork Smith watershed, what is important to maintaining river’s exceptional water quality and wild fish populations—especially late summer and early fall—is invisible to the eye. Out of sight, and out of mind, is a complex little understood groundwater system. Its outward expression are the beautiful streams, with some of the cleanest, clearest water around, and springs that form unique rare plant wetlands, or that flow seemingly from the very rock itself.[4]

Springs and Baldface Creek
Springs seems to emerge from solid rock along Baldface Creek. The Darlingtonia clinging to the rock face are an indication that the flow of water here is year-round. Northwest Rafting Co. photo

Less evident—unless you’re a fish—is the input of these springs, through shallow groundwater connections, into the creeks themselves. The perennial flow provides cool water refugia for coho and chinook salmon, steelhead, rainbow and cutthroat trout, and sensitive aquatic species such as the foothill yellow-legged frog. We know the flow of water is perennial because of the presence of the Darlintonia or Cobra lilies, which in these settings requires a consistent supply of running water year-round.

The springs and the wetlands of this unusual landscape provide cool pure water for fish and for some of the rarest plants in North America and they also benefit downstream waters.

The connectivity of streams and wetlands and their importance to downstream waters

So it’s not just the narrow, albeit beautiful, thread of the North Fork Smith River alone that’s outstanding and that contributes to the clean drinking water of thousands of citizens and visitors downstream in Del Norte County. It’s the North Fork Smith River, its tributaries and the associated springs and wetlands that are outstanding and that benefit communties, fisherman and local economies. These watery features are components of the whole—a unique hydrologic unit.

Pictured is just one part of a large complex of serpentine Darlingtonia fen or wetlands along Taylor Creek, a tributary of Baldface Creek. The presence of such extensive populations of Darlingtonia indicate 1) a consistent year-round flow of water from springs that emerge from the hillslope above and 2) that the amount of water is relatively significant. Photo Justin Rhode

It’s the job of the State of Oregon, under the Clean Water Act, to protect and not allow the degradation of the highest quality waters under its jurisdiction. The North Fork Smith and its tributaries and associated wetlands are just that.

North Fork Smith’s proposed Outstanding Resource Waters Designation

This is why in your comments on the State of Oregon’s Outstanding Resource Waters designation for the North Fork Smith River, its tributaries and associated wetlands, it’s important to be precise and name all the components of the whole—rivers, tributaries, springs and wetlands. They’re all Outstanding Resource Waters.

Please submit your comments before 4:00 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.  Click here for where to write and talking points.

The springs and wetlands of the North Fork Smith River watershed are both rare plant habitat and supplement late season flows with cool clean water. Nate Wilson photo.

Science and the argument for inclusivity

On January 15, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corp of Engineers published a synthesis of the science demonstrating the connectivity of streams and wetlands and their importance to downstream waters. While the Clean Water Rule of the EPA—initiated under the Obama Administration as a result of a Supreme Court ruling—have been challenged in court and may be reversed by the new administration, the science synthesized by the EPA and Corp of Engineers and used as its foundation is unassailable. Here’s a summary of the findings:

  • The scientific literature unequivocally demonstrates that streams, regardless of their size or frequency of flow, are connected to downstream waters and strongly influence their function.
  • The scientific literature clearly shows that wetlands and open waters in riparian areas (transitional areas between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems) and floodplains are physically, chemically, and biologically integrated with rivers via functions that improve downstream water quality. These systems act as effective buffers to protect downstream waters from pollution and are essential components of river food webs.
  • There is ample evidence that many wetlands and open waters located outside of riparian areas and floodplains, even when lacking surface water connections, provide physical, chemical, and biological functions that could affect the integrity of downstream waters. Some potential benefits of these wetlands are due to their isolation rather than their connectivity. 
  • Variations in the degree of connectivity are determined by the physical, chemical and biological environment, and by human activities. These variations support a range of stream and wetland functions that affect the integrity and sustainability of downstream waters.
  • The literature strongly supports the conclusion that the incremental contributions of individual streams and wetlands are cumulative across entire watersheds, and their effects on downstream waters should be evaluated within the context of other streams and wetlands in that watershed.

These findings support the inclusion of tributaries and wetlands as part of the North Fork Smith River Outstanding Resource Waters designation. Don’t’ forget to submit comments on the Outstanding Resource Waters designation for the North Fork Smith River, its tributaries and wetlands before 4:00 p.m. Tuesday, February 28, 2017. Click here for a comment guide.

Clean water | it’s beyond priceless

Here’s a short EPA video to remind us how important clean water is and why we need to protect all the components of a river system that produce clean water that is so important for all life.


[1] The tributaries of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River in Oregon include: Horse Creek, Chrome Creek, Packsaddle Creek, Cedar Creek. One tributary, Baldface Creek and all of its perennial tributaries are U.S. Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers. Another Diamond Creek is a National Wild and Scenic River in California but not in Oregon.

[2] The Rough and Ready Creek and Chetco River watersheds (Kalmiopsis and South Kalmiopsis) also experience similarly high amounts of precipitation as does Hunter Creek and the Pistol River. The high precipitation is part due to the orographic effect,  In 2016 103 inches of precipitation was recorded 30 miles from the coast near the confluence of Rough and Ready Creek with the West Fork Illinois River.

[3] Gasquet Mountain is at the southernmost extent of the North Fork Smith River Watershed in California. The broad rounded plateau is part of the serpentine/ultramafic terrain of the Josephine ophiolite, which underlies a high percentage of the North Fork Smith River watershed in Oregon and California.

[4] The rare plant wetlands are known as Serpentine Darlingtonia Fens or wetlands. The subject to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Conservation Agreement. While Darlingtonia themselves are found on other substrates, the rare vegetation type known as Serpentine Darlingtonia Fens are found only on the serpentine terrain of the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains.


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