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A Guide to Wild and Scenic Rivers in California

by Steve Evans, Wild Rivers Director


“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation…shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”


– The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968


There are 2,404 miles of rivers and streams in California that are protected in the federal and state Wild and Scenic River Systems. Of these, 819.5 miles are federally designated, 1,273.7 miles enjoy dual federal and state protection, and 310.9 miles are state designated. National protection of rivers in California is summarized below.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is the nation’s primary river conservation tool, particularly for waterways flowing through federally managed public lands (National Forests, National Parks, BLM lands, and National Wildlife Refuges). Congress has the authority to add and protect rivers and streams in the national system through legislation. State protected rivers may also be administratively protected in the federal system without legislation upon the request of the state’s Governor and approval of the Interior Secretary. There are nearly 2,100 miles of National Wild and Scenic Rivers in California.

Potential wild and scenic rivers are typically identified by a study conducted by a federal agency as part of the agency’s land and resource management plan or when Congress through legislation directs the agency to study a river. To be eligible, the stream or river segment must be free flowing and possess one or more outstandingly remarkable scenery, recreation, fish, wildlife, geology, historical, cultural, or other values. The free-flowing condition and outstanding values of eligible rivers are protected administratively by the federal agency until Congress determines the status of the river through future legislation. Federal agencies in California have identified 4,381 miles of eligible rivers and streams throughout the state.

The key protective provisions of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act include:

  • A prohibition on dams. First and foremost, designation by Congress prohibits on the designated river segment new dams, diversions, and other water resource projects that have a “direct and adverse effect” on the river’s free flowing character and outstanding values. New water resource projects upstream and downstream of a designated segment are unaffected, as long as the projects do not “unreasonably diminish” river values (Sec. 7[a-b]).
  • Protection of free flowing character and outstanding values. Federal rivers shall be administered to protect and enhance the values which caused it to be included in the system, with a primary emphasis on protecting the river’s aesthetic, scenic, historical, archaeological, and scientific values (Sec. 10[a]).
  • Establish a river corridor and segment classifications. The managing federal agency is required within one year of designation to classify and manage river segments as Wild, Scenic, or Recreation based on the current level of development and establish a river corridor averaging 320 acres per mile (Sec. 3[b]).
  • Develop a Comprehensive River Management Plan to provide for the protection of river values. To be completed within three years of designation, the plan shall address resource protection, development of lands and facilities, user capacities, and other management practices needed to achieve the purposes of the Act (Sec. 6[d][1]).
  • Encourage Cooperation Between Agencies. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act encourages cooperation between federal, state, and local agencies for river studies (Sec. 5[c]) and management plans (Sec. 3[d][1]). Federal agencies are to “assist, advise, and cooperate” with state and local agencies (Sec. 11[b][1]) and may enter into cooperative agreements to administer and manage rivers (Sec. 10[e]).
  • General federal authority to protect rivers through regulations, policies, and plans. All federal agencies with jurisdiction over any lands in or adjacent to a protected river shall take action as necessary to protect such rivers in accordance with the Act (Sec. 12[a]).
  • Protect and restore clean water. Federal agencies managing protected rivers shall cooperate with the EPA and state water pollution control agencies for the purposes of eliminating or diminishing water pollution (Sec. 12[b]).

National Wild and Scenic River protection does not:

  • Affect existing water rights. The Act explicitly states that the State retains jurisdiction of water rights as determined by established principles of law (Sec. 13[b-d]). The California Water Resources Control Board (Div. of Water Rights) considers the specific designated segments of Wild and Scenic Rivers to be “fully appropriated.”
  • Affect State jurisdiction with respect to fish and wildlife and access to riverbeds. The Act states that hunting and fishing is subject to applicable state law and regulations (Sec. 13[a]) and the state retains its access rights to the beds of navigable rivers and streams (Sec. 13[f]).
  • Affect private property rights or local land use regulations. Other than to prohibit federal support, funding, or permits to build a dam on private property in a protected segment, the Act grants no federal authority over private property or local land use regulations. Incorporated cities are encouraged but not required to adopt local ordinances that conform to the purposes of the Act (Sec. 6[c]). Private property values typically increase along wild and scenic rivers.
  • Increase fee title condemnation of private land. Federal condemnation authority is severely restricted on designated rivers (Sec. 6[b]). Fee title condemnation has never been used on wild and scenic rivers in California and most western states. Condemnation of scenic easements is allowed but subject to budget constraints.
  • Affect valid existing mining rights, although federal agencies may issue regulations to provide safeguards against pollution of the river and impairment of its scenery (Sec. 9[a][i-iii]).
  • Abrogate any existing rights, privileges or contracts affecting federal lands held by a private party (Sec. 12[b]).

One of the original eight rivers protected with the passage of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, the Middle Fork Feather River was the first river in California protected in the federal system. Since then, more than 100 river and stream segments totaling more than 2,093 miles in the state have been protected in the federal system. Protected national rivers in California range from iconic Sierra Nevada waterways like the Tuolumne, Kings, and Kern Rivers; desert streams such as the Amargosa River, Surprise Canyon, and the Whitewater River, rivers in the mountains of southern California like the North Fork San Jacinto, Deep Creek, and Sespe Creek; and central and north coast streams that support threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead like the Big Sur, Eel, Trinity, Klamath, and Smith Rivers. Here is a spreadsheet of all federally and state designated rivers and streams in California:

CalWild has a goal of protecting in both the federal and state systems at least 6,000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in California. View this short film about CalWild’s 6,000 miles goal: (click here and scroll halfway down the page).

For more information, contact Steve Evans, CalWild Rivers Director, email:; phone: (916) 708-3155.