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Settlement agreement says state must protect endangered species from polluted runoff

Endangered species in Washington will get a much-needed boost following the settlement of a major lawsuit about runoff and water quality.  

The case is about what’s known asnon-point water pollution.This is mostly runoff that comes typically from farms and cities when it rains. Nitrogen from fertilizers or oily remnants from fossil fuel-burning engines are carried into streams and major waterbodies. Leaky septic systems are another problem. The pollution also includes logging practices that cause water to warm up, when shorelines and streambeds are denuded. 

Unlike point-source pollution, this is not permitted – there is no one party to point to at the end of an exhaust pipe to hold responsible. Instead, it must be dealt with collectively.

All of this "non-point pollution" hurts salmon and orcas, endangered species that continue to struggle, despite decades of restoration work funded by local and federal governments.

Part of the problem, says Nina Bell with Northwest Environmental Advocates, which brought the suit, has been political interference from powerful lobbying groups. She says there is a lot of lip service paid to taking strong action to protect salmon and other species affected, but they they are still declining. She says actions and funding are often stalled because of political interest groups.

The agreement lays out a timeline for the state Department of Ecology to regulate farming practices and implement other specific rules, such as replanting trees in streamside buffers that keep water cool, in consultation with the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“So there are layers of oversight on what Ecology is going to do that that have not existed until the settlement was signed,” she says.

Signed on Jan. 8 in the court of U.S. District Court Judge John C. Coughenour, it specifically requires:   

  • Ecology to complete guidance to farmers on actions that are necessary to protect water quality.  
  • Ecology to identify the width of streamside buffers that are needed on farmland to protect cold water needed by salmon.  
  • Ecology to specify the farm practices that are needed to meet water pollution clean-up plans.  
  • Ecology to identify where it is taking actions to control polluted runoff and report those actions to EPA.  
  •  EPA to review a new Washington statewide nonpoint pollution plan in 2022. 
  • EPA to submit its proposed approval of Washington’s nonpoint plan to expert federal fish and wildlife agencies to assess its impact on threatened and endangered species.  

Ecology says the settlement will simply reinforce efforts already underway. It will cost about $3 million annually for staffing and implementation  - with that funding paid for by the EPA. 
I think that everything that came out of the lawsuit formalizes where we wanted to go,” says Colleen Keltz, communications manager for the Washington state Department of Ecology’s water policy team.

It prioritizes some of our work,” she says. “It also formalizes expectations that we already had with our agricultural guidance being used in funding and implementation of projects. So, you know, it doesn't change anything for us, I would say, in our day to day.”  

Keltz adds that the state will continue to communicate with partners and stakeholders as they roll out new rules and regulations, especially those affecting agriculture.

Bell says the state has long had good intentions. She says voluntary measures are not enough to keep certain species from going extinct. But she does see agencies stepping up.

“More recently, you know, they seem to be more committed to it. But it's that that's not the same thing as a binding court order that requires it to get done,” she said. 

In an emailed statement, Mark MacIntyre, senior public information officer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 in Seattle, said the EPA appreciates the hard work by the Department of Ecology and EPA staff to settle the case. The case is brought under two landmark federal laws, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

“Under the Clean Water Act, states have the responsibility for addressing polluted runoff, with EPA providing assistance and resources,” MacIntyre says.

“While both agencies acknowledge that more work lies ahead, the settlement allows Ecology to continue its efforts to reduce runoff pollution, improve water quality and protect salmon and other aquatic species. EPA remains committed to supporting Ecology with this important work.” 

Not just farmers, but municipal governments will be affected by this ruling. How cities come into compliance will be an important next chapter as more and more people move to the region, increasing the pressure on our waterways and all the life that depends on them.

Update Jan. 14: This story has been updated to clarify that the costs of implementing the settlement agreement will be paid for with money from the EPA.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to