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Seven Years On, Columbia River Benefits from Water Pollution Lawsuit


Monday, December 27, 2021   

A fund created seven years ago in the wake of Clark County's violation of the Clean Water Act is helping improve salmon habitat and cleaning up stormwater in the Columbia River.

Clark County was sued more than a decade ago for approving weaker pollution regulations for entities like big box stores and subdivisions. After losing in court, the county agreed to one of the largest citizen-enforcement penalties in Washington state history: $3 million.

Jan Hasselman, a Seattle-based senior attorney for Earthjustice who worked on the case, said that money didn't go to Washington, DC.

"What we agreed instead was that the county would pay into a local fund for salmon habitat restoration," said Hasselman. "That fund is overseen by biologists and professionals that make sure the money addresses the most important problems."

The penalty helped create the Clark County Clean Water Restoration Fund, which, along with matching investments, funded 25 water restoration projects in the region.

Hasselman said stormwater is the number one source of water pollution in Washington state.

The Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board picked and distributed funds to projects. Denise Smee, program manager with the board, said they've implemented a variety of programs.

"We worked with partners for reducing oil leaks from automobiles, the don't drip and drive program," said Smee. "They worked with landowners and homeowners to facilitate repairs on stormwater facilities, failing septic systems."

The projects have led to the planting of more than 80,000 trees to improve stormwater quality. It's also supported K-12 education programs, providing classroom and field instructions for more than 7,700 students. Smee said those programs have had a big impact on students.

"It's always a huge increase in the kids' knowledge but also their interest in the subject matter," said Smee. "A lot of them, after these projects, are interested in going into natural resources or the environmental field or working with those kinds of positions and jobs."

Many of the projects to help clean up stormwater and improve salmon habitat will continue for the next several years.

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