Critical Areas

The VSP Work Plan must detail how Columbia County will protect critical areas while maintaining and enhancing the viability of agriculture in the watershed. The definition of protection in the legislation for the Voluntary Stewardship Program indicates that “Protect” or “protecting” means to prevent the degradation of functions and values existing as of July 22, 2011.

Critical areas are specifically defined under GMA (RCW 36.70A.030) and include fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, wetlands, frequently flooded areas, geologically hazardous areas, and critical aquifer recharge areas used for potable water.

Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas

Land and waters managed to maintain populations of fish and wildlife species in suitable habitats within their natural geographic distribution over the long term within connected habitat blocks and open spaces.


  • Ranges and habitat elements where federal and state listed endangered, threatened and sensitive species have a primary association
  • Lakes, rivers, ponds, streams, inland waters, and underground waters

Does not include:

  • Artificial features such as irrigation delivery systems, irrigation infrastructure, irrigation canals, or drainage ditches  (when no salmonids are present)


Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 11.17.49 AMAreas that are inundated or saturated by surface water or groundwater supporting a prevalence of vegetation adapted for life in saturated soil

conditions.  The wetlands of Washington State are fragile ecosystems that serve a number of important beneficial functions. Wetlands assist in the reduction of erosion, siltation, flooding, ground and surface water pollution, and provide wildlife, plant, and fisheries habitats. Wetlands destruction or impairment may result in increased public and private costs or property losses.


  • Swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas

Frequently Flooded Areas

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 11.25.29 AMLands in the flood plain subject to at least a one percent or greater chance of flooding in any given year, or within areas subject to flooding due to high groundwater.


  • Streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and areas where high groundwater forms ponds on the ground surface

Geologically Hazardous Areas

Areas susceptible to erosion, sliding, earthquake, or other geological events, where development is not suitable due to public health or safety concerns. Geologically hazardous areas include areas susceptible to erosion, sliding, earthquake, or other geological events. They pose a threat to the health and safety of citizens when incompatible commercial, residential, or industrial development is sited in areas of significant hazard.

Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas

Areas with a critical recharging effect on aquifers used for potable water, including areas where an aquifer that is a source of drinking water is vulnerable to contamination that would affect the potability of the water, or is susceptible to reduced recharge. Water is an essential life-sustaining element. Much of Washington’s drinking water comes from ground water supplies. Once ground water is contaminated it is difficult, costly, and sometimes impossible to clean up. Preventing contamination is necessary to avoid exorbitant costs, hardships, and potential physical harm to people.

Important elements of this definition of “protection” include the terms degradation”, “functions and values”, and the baseline date of July 22, 2011 and what information is available as of that date. To help guide how the Work Plan would provide “protection” of critical areas, this section references the Washington Supreme Court’s Swinomish decision (Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology, 178 Wn.2d 571, 311 P.3d 6 (2013)), which has interpreted “degradation” and other key terms in critical area context of existing agricultural activities under GMA (chapter 36.70A RCW). The Swinomish court clarified that critical area protection requirements are satisfied where existing agricultural activities do not cause additional harm or degradation to the “functional values” of the critical area. Thus the VSP standard for protection of critical areas is the maintenance of existing conditions.

The 2011 VSP statutes effectively codified the Swinomish court’s “no new harm/no further degradation” standard into the VSP sections of the GMA, setting critical area conditions “existing as of July 22, 2011” as the protection baseline. Following Swinomish, the VSP statutes encourage but do not require improvements or enhancements to critical areas already in a degraded condition. The VSP requirement “to protect critical areas” is met where a critical area is protected, at the aggregate or watershed level, from new harms or degradations. Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearing Board, 161 Wn.2d 415 (2007).