To protect and restore rivers, states can use the “exceptional” policy designation
For millennia, healthy, flowing rivers across the United States have helped people, wildlife, and habitats thrive. But today, too many of these rivers are blocked by dams or threatened by pollution, development and climate change. Fortunately, state and tribal governments can use a policy tool to help protect and restore waterways. June is National Rivers Month, making it the perfect time for these officials to list more of our nation’s rivers as “exceptional.”
Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, states and tribes can designate rivers as Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) for a variety of reasons, including high water quality, exceptional recreational or ecological significance, or l existence of cold water thermal refuges. ONRWs, which have different names in different states, maintain water quality, protect fish, wildlife, or other ecological values, and support recreation. An ONRW designation prohibits new or increased pollution on a waterway, although it does not affect existing rights, such as grazing or irrigation.
Here are the ONRW designation efforts in Colorado, New Mexico, Washington and Nevada that could protect hundreds of miles of waterways.
The Colorado Water Quality Board is considering a petition to designate 26 Colorado waterways as exceptional waters. Located in the Animas, Dolores, Gunnison, San Juan, and San Miguel basins of western Colorado, these streams provide critical habitat for native trout, macroinvertebrates, birds, and other wildlife; are home to plants that improve water clarity; are a source of drinking water for communities; and provide exceptional recreational opportunities such as fishing, swimming and paddling.
In April, the New Mexico Water Quality Commission met to consider a petition to designate 14 miles of the Pecos River, 165 miles of tributaries and more than 40 acres of wetlands in the Pecos River watershed as ONRW. The petition was submitted by the Village of Pecos, San Miguel County, Upper Pecos Watershed Association, New Mexico Acequia Association, and Molino de la Isla Organics, LLC.
The crystal clear waters of the Pecos River are home to one of the few remaining populations of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, native to New Mexico. The watershed is also home to several threatened or endangered species, including the Mexican spotted owl and the peregrine falcon. The upper Pecos watershed faces increasing threats such as extractive industries and habitat fragmentation from roads.
Additionally, the state’s outdoor recreation division, part of the New Mexico Department of Economic Development, has designated more than 100 miles of rivers in the Rio Grande, Rio Hondo, and Jemez river systems. like ONRW. New Mexico’s rivers help drive the state’s $2.4 billion outdoor recreation economy, irrigate farms, support jobs and generate income for locals. local communities.
The Washington Department of Ecology plans to initiate regulations this year to consider designating segments of the Green, Napeequa and Cascade rivers as the state’s first exceptional resource waters. Washington’s rivers provide drinking water to communities, support local economies, including many recreational opportunities, and improve the health of fish and wildlife.
Nevada is home to spectacular freshwater, from Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake to the Marys River, home to the native Lahontan cutthroat trout, and the Muddy River Hot Springs, home to wildlife not found anywhere. elsewhere in the world. The Colorado River, which flows into the state after exiting the Grand Canyon, supplies southern Nevada with 90% of its water.
Today, Nevada’s Environmental Protection Division is developing a policy to protect its “extraordinary ecological, aesthetic, or recreational waters.” Designation under this new policy would protect waters with important conservation or recreational features and prevent the degradation of their current water quality. The state is expected to finalize this policy before the end of 2022.
The Pew Charitable Trusts and local partners work to secure the exceptional water designations and policies summarized above. Such protection would help ensure that Americans, along with a wide variety of plants and animals, can continue to depend on our country’s waterways for generations to come.
Patrick Lane is an officer and Carrie Sandstedt is a senior staff member of The Pew Charitable Trusts US Public Lands and Rivers Conservation Project.