A homegrown movement to protect the clear waters and wild rivers of Oregon's Kalmiopsis & Wild Rivers Coast

The science behind protecting Oregon’s Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River’s outstanding water quality

The waters of Oregon’s National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River and its tributaries are of the highest quality and exceptionally clear. But this is not 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.

It’s also a reflection of the decades long effort to protect a unique area of National Forest land in the Wild Rivers Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest known locally as the South Kalmiopsis. The North Fork Smith River flows out of the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness, through the South Kalmiopsis and Packsaddle Roadless Areas, then into California’s Smith River National Recreation Area

Baldface Creek
The exceptionally clear waters of Baldface Creek—a U.S. Forest Service Candidate Wild & Scenic River and major tributary to the Oregon’s North Fork Smith River— are a reflection of the integrity of its wild watershed in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. Jon Parmentier photo.

Oregon’s Landmark 2017 North Fork Smith River Outstanding Resource Waters designation under the Clean Water Act

A little over two years ago the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission—in a landmark and unanimous decision— designated the North For Smith River, its tributaries, and associated wetlands Outstanding Resource Waters, under the Clean Water Act. It’s important to note that the designation not only protects the water quality of the 13 miles of the North Fork Smith River that was added to the National Wild and Scenic River System in 1988 but also it’s tributaries and associated wetlands.


Here’s why this is a farsighted and science-based approach to protecting the nationally outstanding water quality of this federally protected river.

The art of seeing a river

One of my favorite books on rivers is about 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 an understanding of its most elemental components and their connectivity and function.

The foundational elements of the North Fork Smith River’s are its underlying geology, a strong orographic effect and proximity to the Pacific ocean resulting in surprisingly abundant precipitation, the low gradience of its stream system, and the near reference condition of its watershed.

One of the wettest places on the West Coast

Most of the precipitation in this remote, rugged corner of Oregon falls as rain. According to the Forest Service annual precipitation varies from 100 to 160.inches.[2]  And rainfall can significantly exceed this amount. For example, the Gasquet Mountain Mine draft Environmental Impact Statement says that during the 1981-82 water year, 240 inches of precipitation were recorded on Gasquet Mountain.[3]

The Kalmiopsis Serpentines

About half of the North Fork Smith River watershed in Oregon is underlain by the serpentine terrain of the highly fractured and faulted Josephine Peridotite. Serpentine soils are high in iron and magnesium and contain heavy metals like nickel, chromium and cobalt. 

\The ancient serpentine terrain of the Josephine Peridotite

Some runs off creating spectacular winter whitewater, especially downstream in the California half of the North Fork Smith River. But the abundant rain, and fleeting snowpack, also infiltrate into the ancient faulted and fractured geologic foundation underlying the river’s watershed. The serpentine terrain of the Josephine Peridotite, a part of the Josephine ophiolite, extends north into the watersheds of the Wild and Scenic Illinois and Chetco Rivers.

On the surface, this rugged, stark landscape is dominated by an abundance of peridotite rock and populated by gnarled pine and cedar, native bunch grasses 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 what’s locally called the South Kalmiopsis may look like a desert, but according to Forest Service r

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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