California Wild Rivers Project

Wild Rivers Project


50+ Years Of Saving Rivers

The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act in 1968, creating the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. The law was specifically intended to balance the nation’s existing policy of building dams on rivers to develop their water supply, flood control, and hydroelectric potential, with a new policy to ensure that some free-flowing rivers with outstanding values are protected for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

This bedrock environmental law is the nation’s primary river conservation tool. New dams and diversions are prohibited on protected rivers. Federal agencies are required to manage federal public lands along the rivers to protect their free-flowing character and specific outstanding recreation, scenic, fish, wildlife, geological, cultural/historical, and other values. This is accomplished through the development of a comprehensive river management plan three years after designation. Designated rivers are also managed as wild, scenic, or recreational based on the level of existing development at time of designation.

Explore California’s Wild Rivers

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The National System protects 12,734 miles of rivers and streams, less than 1% of the 3.6 million miles of rivers and streams in the nation. In California, about 2,100 miles of rivers and streams are protected in the National System, or about 2% of the rivers and streams in the state. There is also a state-managed Wild & Scenic River System in California, with extensive overlap between federal and state protection. Based on federal agency assessments, CalWild estimates that there are about 4,500 miles of rivers and streams in California that are eligible for national and state protection.

Both the federal and state Wild & Scenic River Systems were established in reaction to our nation’s aggressive policy of dam development. Although dams provide many benefits, they also drown river canyons and habitat, modify downstream flows, block fish migration, and degrade water quality. There are an estimated 84,000 dams in the United States impounding 600,000 miles of rivers. California alone has more than 1,400 dams on its rivers and streams. Congress and the California Legislature established the national and state river systems to ensure that at least some free-flowing rivers and streams with outstanding and extraordinary values were protected for present and future generations.

Amargosa River by John Dittli

Amargosa River by John Dittli

Rivers are primarily protected in the national system through legislation passed by Congress. Congress may direct federal agencies to study and make recommendations as to whether specific rivers should be added to the system. The Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other federal land management agencies are also required to assess the Wild & Scenic River potential of streams flowing through public lands as part of the agency’s land and resource planning process. Federal agencies have identified more than 4,200 miles of rivers and streams eligible for federal protection through this process.

State protected rivers may also be added to the federal system without congressional approval upon the request of the state’s governor and approval of the Interior Secretary. In 1981, the entire state river system in California was added to the federal system under this provision. Rivers enjoying dual federal/state protection under this provision are to be managed by the state.

National Wild & Scenic Rivers in California include large rivers like the Klamath in northwest California and tiny seasonal streams, such as Bautista Creek in southern California. Many of California’s rivers and streams in the federal and state system were protected in direct response to proposals to build river-destroying dams. Others were protected simply because they possessed unique natural and cultural resources that deserved special recognition and protective management. Many rivers and streams have been designated to protect threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, and other native fish. Others were designated for their outstanding whitewater recreation opportunities. Some have been protected because of their outstanding prehistoric and Native American cultural values. The protected rivers in California represent a diverse range of large and small waterways possessing a wide variety of outstanding natural and cultural values.

Smith River Salmon

Smith River salmon.

CalWild has been involved in the protection of virtually every National Wild & Scenic River in California since 1984 (see a detailed list here). Many of the combined wild river and wilderness bills protecting public lands in California were developed and lobbied for by CalWild and its allies. CalWild is also responsible for at least three bills currently pending before Congress to protect 227 miles of Wild & Scenic Rivers and 649,000 acres of wilderness.

CalWild and our allies are working to:

  • Designate 480 miles of WSRs in northwestern California through Rep. Huffman’s Northern California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act Act
  • Designate 159 miles of WSRs in the Central Coast through Rep. Carbajal and Sen. Harris’s Central Coast Heritage Protection Act
  • Designate 45.5 miles of WSRs in the San Gabriel Mountains through Rep. Chu’s San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act
  • Continue to identify and pursue administrative protection of potential WSRs in the National Forest Plan Revisions starting in the Inyo, Sierra, Sequoia (786 miles combined) National Forests, followed by several plans beginning in northwestern California in 2021/2022


The latest news on Wild & Scenic Rivers

Get information on the designated WSRs throughout California.

The primary provisions of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act:

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The Pursuit of 6,000 Wild & Scenic Miles

CalWild and Colorfool films have come together to produce a documentary film that will help protect 6,000 miles of Wild and Scenic California Rivers. In California, only 2,100 miles of rivers and streams are protected in the National System, or about 2% of the rivers and streams in the state. We estimate that there are another 4,500 miles of rivers and streams in California that are eligible for national and state protection. This documentary will debut at the Bioneers Conference April 6th – 8th, 2023 to convey the importance of these rivers for many communities, and a road map to how we can work to get it done.

Thank you to the generous sponsors of this project: HiPark, NRS, Alpacka Raft, Sunski, Klean Kanteen, American Whitewater