Our Research

The Clean Water Act of 1972 is the primary way the federal government prevents pollution from entering our waterways.

The Clean Water Act set a national goal of ensuring that all our waterways are fishable, swimmable, and drinkable. But are they? Many of the nation’s waters remain impacted due to agricultural non-point source pollution, which is not subject to federal water quality permitting requirements as most other polluters are This places the goal of the Clean Water Act at risk – in addition to the health of our fish, our waters and our people.

Read the white paper on agricultural pollution in the Puget Sound here.

Fish Health

Fish Health

Many sources lead to pollution impairments of Washington’s waterways, but agriculture is the largest. Cow manure, pesticide and fertilizer run-off, and agricultural practices that disturb riparian habitat increase stream temperatures and decrease dissolved oxygen levels, which is deadly for salmon and shellfish.

In 1991, the federal government listed Snake River sockeye salmon as endangered. In the next few years, 16 more populations of salmon in Washington were listed as either threatened or endangered because of polluted habitat, not harvest. Habitat is not improving, even under the Endangered Species Act.

Stream Health

Stream Health

A recent GAO report of nationwide trends finds that "at historical funding levels and water body restoration rates, it would take longer than 1,000 years to restore all the water bodies that are now impaired by non-point source pollution."

Public Health

Public Health

Manure contains nitrates, which are acute contaminants that produce immediate (within hours or days) health effects upon exposure. High doses particularly threaten pregnant mothers with miscarriages, while babies can get methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby syndrome," which can be fatal. High nitrate levels may increase the risk of spontaneous abortions and other birth defects.

Habitat Health

How Riparian Buffers Ensure Our Waterways Are Fishable, Swimmable and Drinkable and Protect Us from Agricultural Pollution

Streamside habitat is critical for good water quality and salmon health. Riparian vegetation provides shade to stream channels, contributes large woody debris to streams, adds small organic matter to streams, stabilizes stream banks, controls sediment inputs from surface erosion, and regulates nutrient and pollutant inputs to streams. Riparian buffers can mitigate much of the harm caused by pesticides, fertilizers, and farming and grazing to the edge of waterways and streams.

Washington's Current Regulations

All states are required to implement the federal Clean Water Act. Washington's current regulatory framework for protecting our waterways from pollution is the product of a handful of separate statutes. A summary of the state's plan to address non-point source pollution can be found here. The state's voluntary water quality "Best Management Practices" for agriculture can be found here.

Water Quality Improvement Plans

The state Department of Ecology currently manages 62 water quality improvement projects throughout Washington. To learn more or find out about the project nearest to you, click here.

Public Opinion

What's Upstream? partners have conducted opinion research among Washingtonians over the past three years about the importance of clean and healthy waterways. The results are included below