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If We Can’t Protect Our Watershed, Let’s Give The Watershed The Right To Protect Itself

In the September 2018 edition of Works in Progress, longtime Olympia resident, sailor, and ecological activist Harry Branch lamented recent decisions by the Olympia Hearing Examiner on appeals by the Olympia Urban Waters League (OUWL). OUWL was fighting a large development in the heart of the historic Moxlie Creek Estuary, which OUWL was hoping to restore. Unfortunately, all of the appeals were dismissed for “lack of standing,” as OUWL had failed to prove immediate and personal harm from the developer’s actions.

Harry wrote:

“One reason other species don’t have standing is because they can’t stand up in court and talk. A human would have to speak on behalf of an orca, salmon or grebe: ‘I will be damaged by this action in the following ways.’ Well, why not? And why does our legal system treat nature as property instead of rights-bearing entities?”

Today, Harry has teamed up with Standing for Washington, a grassroots political committee dedicated to protecting the natural resources of Washington State. They proudly announce the launch of an innovative initiative campaign to recognize and protect legal rights for the Budd Inlet Watershed, and watersheds across the state.


Standing for Washington is kicking off the “Standing for Our Watersheds” campaign with petition signature drives for local initiatives in Olympia for the Budd Inlet Watershed, Everett for the Snohomish River Watershed, and Tumwater for the Deschutes River Watershed. Each initiative contains the same language, proposing a city ordinance that recognizes the inherent rights of the watershed to exist, flourish, and have clean water, and would establish legal standing for the community to advocate for the watershed’s rights in court.

Standing for Washington plans to rapidly expand this campaign to cities throughout Washington with initiative power. Each city has a dedicated page on the Standing for Washington website, providing information on the local watershed and has a link to the petition for that city. Residents of that city can easily:

  • Print the petition (double-sided),

  • Sign the petition (and get friends, family, and neighbors to sign it), and

  • Mail it to Standing for Washington, PO Box 445, Olympia, WA 98507.


Watersheds are vital for sustaining life, supporting economic activities, and preserving environmental health. They provide habitat for diverse species, contribute to the economy, and safeguard clean water resources.

By granting legal standing to watersheds, communities can advocate for their protection more effectively, transcending the limitations governments often face, and promoting better stewardship and management.


Recognizing the rights of our watersheds is a proactive step towards ensuring the long-term health and sustainability of our environment and community, by providing an additional layer of protection for ecosystems that may not be adequately safeguarded under existing legal frameworks.

One of the key reasons for recognizing the rights of our watersheds is to address the inherent limitations of traditional legal approaches, which often prioritize human interests over those of the environment. By granting legal standing to our watersheds, we acknowledge the intrinsic value of the natural world and its essential role in supporting life on Earth.

Furthermore, recognizing the rights of our watersheds enables us to take a more holistic and proactive approach to environmental protection. If damage is being done to the watershed, rather than waiting for harm to occur to an individual sometime down the road before taking action, we can work to stop or prevent the initial damage to the watershed itself. It is dealt with in a systemic way, thereby safeguarding not only the ecosystem but also the many benefits it provides to our community, economy, and future generations.


The government absolutely has a role in protecting our watersheds. They play a crucial role in setting regulations and enforcing them. However, governments have limitations, like limited resources, regulation fatigue from the public, and political pressures that can leave environmental regulations subject to political whims..

Sometimes the government just isn’t keeping pace with the damage that is occurring and the community is losing patience. The Snohomish River Watershed in Everett is currently seeing major damage to local species due to flame retardant chemicals that currently have no regulatory requirements around monitoring or limiting their levels in effluent from municipal wastewater treatment facilities. How much damage will species endure in that watershed while the government gets that figured out?

By giving the watershed legal standing, we create another layer of protection. This wouldn’t replace the government’s role, but it could provide legal leverage with the watershed becoming a party in lawsuits, a long-term focus that transcends political cycles, and a voice to the community that relies on the watershed for its well-being.

Think of it as adding another tool in the fight for a healthy watershed. It wouldn’t make the government’s role obsolete, it would strengthen the overall effort. Governments could use this tool, as well, to protect the rights of the watershed in its care.


Standing for Washington invites everyone to visit their website,, to learn more about the campaign, volunteer for signature gathering, donate, and add their signature to the petition from the comfort of their home.

The launch of this campaign marks a significant step toward a more sustainable and resilient future for Washington State. Join Standing for Washington in safeguarding our watersheds and preserving the natural heritage of our state.

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