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A first in Oregon | The North Fork Smith Outstanding Resource Waters

It was unanimous and a first for Oregon. On July 17th of last year, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission named the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River, its tributaries and associated wetlands Outstanding Resource Waters. The designation is reserved for the highest quality waters of the United States and is part of the Clean Water Act’s anti-degradation policy.

We want to share some of what was said on that momentous day in Salem and why—in light of an emerging threat—Oregon officials were more forward thinking that anyone could have imagined then. Bear with us as we look both back to 2017 and then to an increasingly murky future.

We start with DEQ’s July 17, 2017 press release. It states in part:

This is Oregon’s first designation of an Outstanding Resource Water, and the first in the Pacific Northwest. The waters of the North Fork Smith River offer exceptional clarity and a vibrant blue color. The pristine conditions are valuable habitat for endangered populations of Coho salmon, several rare plant species and other fish and wildlife, making this designation an unparalleled opportunity for protection.

The Commission’s 5-0 vote included direction to establish policies to protect the water quality and outstanding values of the North Fork Smith River, its tributaries and associated wetlands.

Kayakers on the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River in Oregon
Oregon’s designation of the North Fork Smith Outstanding Resource Waters will help protect some of the finest waters in the nation. Northwest Rafting Company photo.

So what is an Outstanding Resource Water?

According to Oregon Administrative Rules:

Outstanding Resource Waters means those waters designated by the Environmental Quality Commission (Commission or EQC) where existing high quality waters constitute an outstanding state or national resource, based on their extraordinary water quality or ecological values, or where special water quality protection is needed to maintain critical habitat areas. OAR 340-041-0002(45).

Read more about the Oregon rule and rule making process at the Department of Environmental Qquality’s webpage for the North Fork Smith Outstanding Resource Waters designation.

At the hearing, DEQ staff explained that:

The Outstanding Resource Waters designation gives special protection for the best of the best waters in Oregon.

One commissioner said she was pleased to see the North Fork Smith proposal,

because this is the first time we’re implementing the full scope of our water quality standards protections.

She noted that often this part of Oregon’s water quality standards gets overlooked and that Oregon is fortunate to have some tremendously valuable pristine waters.

Public hearing in Brookings Oregon for North Fork Smith Outstanding Resource Waters
The public hearing for the North Fork Smith Outstanding Resource Waters designation was held in Brookings, Oregon. The testimony overwhelmingly favored the water protection.

What other states are doing?

Wisconsin, while its overall percentage of Outstanding Resource Waters is small, has designated 103 lakes and 254 creeks and rivers as Outstanding Resource Waters. Learn more about Wisconsin here.

New Mexico has designated all surface waters in the Valle Vidal Special Management Unit and 700 miles of 192 perennial streams, 29 lakes and approximately 6,000 acres of wetlands in U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Areas as Outstanding Natural Resource Waters. Learn about New Mexico’s Outstanding Resource Waters here.

Overdue in Oregon

Oregon has long had the authority to designate Outstanding Resources Waters. It just hasn’t used it. However, the North Fork Smith, its tributaries and associated wetlands are a model first—done in an exemplary rule making process with overwhelming public support.

Here’s Richard Whitman, the new director for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality remarks in closing on July 17th::

I’m very pleased to be here and to see the commission to make the first designation because it frankly is long overdue… I want to thank Gordon [Lyford] for his work submitting the petition to the agency for this designation, and all the folks who worked with him, and all the thousands of citizens who supported this designation.

North Fork Smith River, Oregon's first Outstanding Resource Waters
The watershed of the North Fork Smith River in Oregon is mostly within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness or its large adjacent Roadless Areas—South Kalmiopsis and Packsaddle. It provides pristine habitat for native coho and chinook salmon and steelhead and cutthroat trout.. Northwest Rafting Co. photo.

Prescient words from DEQ’s new director

One issue raised during the public comment period was that with existing protections, the Outstanding Resource Waters designation was redundant. In answer to this, DEQ staff explained why this was not the case:

The other kinds of protections don’t directly get to water quality … they get to the landscape but not necessarily to water quality. This [designation] provides specificity around the types of water quality that we would want to see and in that respect it’s complimentary [to the other protections] but not redundant.

Director Whitman explained further:

… looking over a very long period of time, controls on land use in special places can change and this provides a complimentary tool to assure that we don’t have backsliding in those very special waters that are subject to this rule.

When he spoke these words, an overwhelmingly popular administrative 20-year mineral withdrawal (a type of protection from new mining) was secure and Senators Wyden and Merkley and Reps. DeFazio and Huffman were (and still are) seeking to make it permanent through legislation (H.R. 310 and S. 182).

The unforeseen threat

No one at that July 2017 Oregon Water Quality Commission hearing could have guessed what was about to happen. In late September, Rep. Rob Bishop (R UT) started pressing the Trump Administration to review all mineral withdrawals that were implemented by the Obama Administration.

In addition, the Administration is threatening to roll back a mineral withdrawal made in 2012 and recently upheld in court. Thia temporary ban on new mining is designed to protect the Grand Canyon watershed for 20 years while more is learned about the region’s complex groundwater regime and how to best protect it.

This kind of after-the-fact attack on existing secretarial mineral withdrawals, having undergone the extensive public process and environmental analysis required by the Federal Land Management and Policy Act, is unprecedented.

Mr. Bishop’s appears to be especially miffed about the Southwest Oregon Withdrawal. His complaints have no foundation but tellingly mirror those of Red Flat Nickel Corporation,

The mining company, a subsidiary of Guernsey based St. Peter Port Capital, Ltd.. They want to develop two nickel laterite strip mines on National Forest lands in southwest Oregon. One, the Cleopatra Project is in the North Fork Smith River watershed and the other, the Red Flat Project is in the headwaters of Hunter Creek, a few miles from a spectacular stretch of the Oregon coast and the .[1]

According to EPA data analyzed in this report, the metal mining industry released more toxic pollution to our land, air and water in 2016 than any other industry sector in the United States.

At the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission hearing, Gordon Lyford, who lives about 5 miles as a crow flies from the North Fork Smith’s headwaters had a chance address the commission and DEQ staff. His closing words:  

Often it’s harder to do something good and easier to do something bad … Breaking a window is easy to do. Fixing a broken window is hard. In other words, it’s easier to pollute rivers than to clean them up.

So until legislation is passed to make the Southwest Oregon Withdrawal permanent, the North Fork Smith River and its sister streams are at risk. Learn how Senators Wyden and Merkley and Reps. DeFazio and Huffman are fighting back and stay tuned.

About a welcome amendment

On a happier note, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission made one amendment to DEQ’s recommended North Fork Smith Outstanding Resource Waters designation. After discussion, the Commission voted to include the 555 acre Cedar Creek parcel of state land. In addition to it’s inaccessibility and pristine character, it was argued that it would be hypocritical to exempt the state land from the Outstanding Resource Waters designation.

The parcel is the only non-National Forest land in Oregon’s half of the North Fork Smith watershed. It’s surrounded on three sides by the Packsaddle Roadless Area and on one side by the Smith River National Recreation Area. Roadless itself, the state land includes an important section of Cedar Creek, a direct tributary of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith. On Google Earth, this segment of Cedar Creek appears to have an extensive wetland adjacent to it. 

Cedar Creek State of Oregon lands in North Fork Smith River watershed.
The 555 acre Cedar Creek State of Oregon land is pristine with untouched headwater streams and wetlands. The Environmental Quality Commission voted to included it in the Outstanding Resource Waters designation. Google Earth image.

What you can do

  1. Leave a note thanking Governor Kate Brown for the State of Oregon’s exemplary work to protect the Outstanding Resource Waters of the North Fork Smith River, its tributaries and its associated wetlands. Click here to go to the Governor’s “share your opinion” page.
  2. Make phone calls to Senator Wyden, Senator Merkley, Rep. DeFazio and Rep. Huffman offices and urging them to make the Southwest Oregon Mineral Withdrawal permanent and in the meantime to fight like heck against any effort to undo the 20-year interim protection

Learn more about the North Fork Smith Outstanding Resource Waters designation

Notes

[1] 2016 is the latest reporting year for EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. EPA has not crunched the numbers yet. However, Ode to Clean took EPA’s 2016 data and analyzed it in this report entitled the United States of Toxins. It should be noted that TRI data only includes the toxic releases of a single reporting year. It does not include the toxic pollution released from abandoned mines for example. See Earthworks Action’s report on abandoned mines here.

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