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With only minutes to spare: a historic decision to protect California rivers

By Steve Evans

The last day of President Jimmy Carter’s administration was January 19, 1981. Carter’s cabinet secretaries were asked to tender their resignations prior to the swearing-in on January 20 of the new President, Ronald Reagan. But, Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus refused to resign before the end of the Carter administration, as he was patiently waiting to approve a proposal to save hundreds of miles of rivers in California.

This story of last-minute river saving begins in 1972, with the passage of the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The law prohibited state approval of new dams on segments of the Smith, Klamath, Scott, Salmon, Trinity, Eel, and lower American Rivers (and many of their forks and tributaries). Ironically, the bill was signed by then-Governor Reagan, on the advice of California Resources Secretary Ike Livermore.

Explore California’s Wild Rivers


Turns out, Livermore was responding to the intense lobbying campaign by anglers and rancher Richard Wilson. Wilson’s ranch in Round Valley was threatened by the proposed Dos Rios Dam on the Eel River (a campaign documented in the book: The River Stops Here by Ted Simon, the University of California Press 2001). The proposed dam would have stored water for diversion through a tunnel under the Coast Range to feed farms in the Central Valley and new suburbs in southern California. The dam would not only drown Wilson’s Ranch and most of the Round Valley Indian Reservation, but it would have also destroyed the Eel’s outstanding salmon and steelhead fishery. 

Jump forward eight years to 1980 when Governor Jerry Brown was concerned that Ronald Reagan would be elected President. He knew that California agribusiness was lobbying Reagan to approve a federal version of the Dos Rios Dam, despite a state law prohibiting such a dam. As a result, Brown invoked a little-known provision of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which allowed a state governor to petition the Interior Secretary to administratively add state-protected rivers to the federal system, without approval by that state’s legislature or Congress. 

Eel River at English Ridge

Governor Brown’s petition to add the entire state system – more than a thousand miles of the Klamath, Scott, Salmon, Trinity, Eel, and lower American Rivers – landed on Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus’ desk in early 1980. However, pro-dam forces immediately filed for a federal injunction to prevent Andrus from approving the petition, while also approving a rider to a House funding bill prohibiting Andrus from signing the petition. Nevertheless, the Department of Interior initiated a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to approve the federal protection of the state rivers.

Towards the end of 1980, after Ronald Reagan was elected President, Congress passed its funding bill but with all riders stripped out, and the Interior Department was dotting the eyes and crossing the tees on its rivers EIS. Meanwhile, the lawsuit challenging the rivers petition was slowly moving through the federal court and the injunction against protecting the rivers remained in place.

More than 1,235 miles of rivers protected with 285 minutes to spare

Cecil Andrus | Credit Boise State University Special Collections

Andrus quietly refused to submit a letter of resignation prior to Reagan’s inauguration – he was still waiting for the opportunity to prohibit dam building on the California rivers federally. The state petition and the completed EIS were literally sitting on Andrus’ desk. The only impediment was the federal injunction.

On the evening of January 19, Andrus turned off the lights and left his Interior office for what he thought was the last time. There had yet to be a word about the injunction. He joined other administration members for a farewell get-together at the White House. Attendees were also closely monitoring intense last-minute negotiations to free American hostages in Iran. 

While at the White House, Andrus received a phone call informing him that the federal injunction was lifted. He immediately returned to his darkened office at Interior and signed Brown’s petition and approved the final EIS, with an Interior janitor recruited to witness the signing. With the stroke of his pen, Andrus protected more than 1,235 miles of rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System at 7:45 PM on January 19, 1980, just 285 minutes before the Carter Administration ended at midnight. 

Pro-dam forces later attempted but failed to overturn the decision in federal court. Wrongly perceiving it as a “federal take-over” of state-protected rivers, the California Legislature would subsequently gut key protective provisions of the state law, making federal protection even more important. 

Nevertheless, the rivers were permanently protected and the proposed Dos Rios Dam and other speculative dam projects proposed for the Eel, Smith, Klamath, and other rivers were dead. With only minutes to spare, the California rivers were protected with a stroke of the pen.

Thanks to David Weiman and Bill Kier, who fought to protect these California rivers, and provided the chronology of events in 1980-81 for this article.