Highest Protection Slated for the Spectacular Smith River

April, 2016

Regional Water Board Proposes “Outstanding” Designation


Crystal clear underwater photo in the North Fork Smith River.  Photo: © Thomas Dunklin.

 Protections for the iconic Smith River are set to take a huge leap forward under a proposal to designate it as an “outstanding national resource water,” an action that would mark the first for any California river and bring the strongest protections afforded under the Clean Water Act.  The historical move comes at the urging of the Center for Biological Diversity, and it not only enacts meaningful protections for the beloved Smith, but it is also jump-starting the long overdue process of designating other deserving North Coast watersheds.

In a nutshell, the level of protection given to a waterbody depends on which of three categories it is placed in, with “outstanding national resource waters,” or ONRWs, receiving the highest Tier 3 protections.  Absolutely no water quality degradation is allowed in ONRWs, with a limited exception for short-term or temporary impacts.  These strong safeguards are reserved for the nation’s highest quality waters, as well as those that offer “exceptional recreational or ecological significance,” including “waters of National and State parks and wildlife refuges.” 

The provisions for ONRWs are found in the antidegradation policy of the Clean Water Act, which requires states to adopt policies that are at least as protective as the federal version.  State antidegradation policies are the primary means to protect and restore our nation’s waters, and many states established specific processes for citizens to nominate ONRWs to help ensure the intent of the Clean Water Act is met. 

Conversely, California has no such process in place and unsurprisingly, there are just two
ONRWs recognized in the entire state today: Lake Tahoe and Mono Lake.  This stands in contrast to smaller states that have a higher number of ONRWs—such as Virginia, where parts of 30 watersheds are currently designated; or New Mexico, where all lakes, perennial streams, and wetlands in federal Wilderness areas were designated in 2010.

However, many California waterbodies qualify as ONRWs, with the Smith River being a prime case-in-point.  Flowing emerald-green all year, the Smith is the last major river in California that remains undammed from its headwaters to the Pacific, and it provides residents in much of Del Norte County with some of the cleanest drinking water in the nation.  It is renowned for its salmon runs, whitewater, and rich cultural history, and it flows through extraordinary public lands, including the Smith River Recreation Area, Redwood State Park, and Tolowa Dunes State Park.

Groups have urged the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (the Board) to designate ONRWs multiple times over the last two decades, and it was identified as a priority in four of the five last triennial reviews of the Board’s water quality plan.  The issue finally gained traction in the last review, after the Center again made the case that it should be elevated to a top priority and many others echoed the call, including the Smith River Rancheria and Karuk Tribe.

Public comment “convincingly indicated” the Board should move ONRW designations to a high priority, “with the Smith River as the first.”  The Board also agreed that the Salmon River, Clear Creek, and Dillon Creek in the Klamath Basin are ONRW candidates, and there are strong arguments to be made for others, including Humboldt Bay, the Elk River, and the Eel River.

Meanwhile, it is important to continue advocating for the Smith’s ONRW designation, which should be finalized sometime in the next year, and to make sure it translates into real action for the watershed.  Del Norte supervisors are already delaying the process, getting the Board to postpone the initial “scoping” meeting in March.  And while the designation brings the highest level of protection, it is no silver-bullet on its own, and will require vigilant citizen oversight to see that it bears the full protection the law requires and the Smith deserves.

To receive notices and/or support the Smith ONRW, contact Alydda Mangelsdorf at the Regional Water Board:  (707) 576-6735 or alydda.mangelsdorf@waterboards.ca.gov.


Click here to read the Smith River Alliance's Action Alert


Take action and comment online at Oregon.gov by Tuesday, April 19!


Subject categories: