Wild Rivers Project

Wild Rivers Project

Even in a state that sets the bar for diversity – in culture, geology, wildlife, and ecology – the array of outstanding waterways California contains is truly remarkable. Steep, granite-housed Sierra Nevada rivers make up the majority of our drinking water and flow into two massive Central Valley drainages (the San Joaquin and Sacramento) that then feed millions through one of the world’s largest agricultural economies. Coastal rivers like the Sespe, Eel, and the mighty Klamath – plus ephemeral ones like the Mojave Desert’s Amargosa – all add singular qualities to a region where water exists in extremes. Proposals to dam and divert these waters, which are economic drivers and habitat for critical keystone species like Coho salmon, along with extended droughts, continue to threaten their longterm health.

Complimenting our longstanding work to protect wilderness lands, CalWild has a formidable track of protecting wild and scenic rivers. Ever since we advocated for the Tuolumne River to be designated in the historic California Wilderness Act of 1984, wild rivers have been a part of every one of our protection campaigns.

Explore California’s Wild Rivers

50+ years of saving rivers

The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act in 1968, creating the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. This bedrock environmental law is the nation’s primary river conservation tool, prohibiting new dams and diversions on protected rivers through acts of Congress. Designated rivers are managed as wild, scenic, or recreational based on the level of existing development at time of designation.

The National System protects less than 1% of the country’s rivers and streams – a figure so low that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers free-flowing rivers to be endangered ecosystems. In California, about 2,100 miles of rivers and streams are protected in the National System (~2% of the state’s waterways). 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. It is our goal to designate 6,000 miles total by 2028.

We're working to:

  • Designate 680 miles of wild and scenic rivers as part of the PUBLIC Lands Act and
  • Identify thousands of miles of rivers and streams eligible for WSR protection by participating in National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land and resource plans.


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Our ambitious goal

CalWild, American Whitewater, and Colorfool films collaborated to produce a short film showing the deep connection between our rivers and the advocacy needed to save them. The film highlights the passion of NorCal paddler Kayla Lopez through her “soul river”, the Trinity, alongside the tireless work of CalWild’s Steve Evans as he leads our Wild Rivers Project to designate thousands of miles of new wild rivers.

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

A nation of dams

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.

Smith River Salmon

Smith River salmon.

Spotlight and EcoFlight Videos

Thanks to volunteer Justin Baker and Jeff Creamer for much of the Spotlight video footage and EDBL Music Collective for the soundtracks! Make sure to subscribe to our channel on Youtube for more videos.

Click to learn about the designated wild and scenic rivers of California

For wild & scenic river chronology click here. For a detailed list of protections, click here.