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California Wild & Scenic Rivers

 The California Wild & Scenic Rivers Act


East Fork Carson AutumnThe California Wild & Scenic Rivers Act (Public Resources Code Sec. 5093.50 et seq.) was passed in 1972 to preserve designated rivers possessing extraordinary scenic, recreation, fishery, or wildlife values. With its initial passage, the California system protected segments of the Smith River and tributaries, Klamath River and tributaries, Scott River, Salmon River, Trinity River, Eel River, Van Duzen River, and American River. The state system was subsequently expanded by the Legislature to include the East Carson and West Walker rivers in 1989, the South Yuba River in 1999, the Albion River and Gualala Rivers in 2003, and Cache Creek in 2005. In addition, segments of the McCloud River, Deer Creek, and Mill Creek were protected under the Act in 1989 and 1995 respectively, although these segments were not formally designated as components of the system.

The Act provides a number of legal protections for rivers included within the System, beginning with the following legislative declaration (Sec. 5093.50):

It is the policy of the State of California that certain rivers which possess extraordinary scenic, recreational, fishery, or wildlife values shall be preserved in their free-flowing state, together with their immediate environments, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the state. The Legislature declares that such use of these rivers is the highest and most beneficial use and is a reasonable and beneficial use of water within the meaning of Section 2 of Article X of the California Constitution.




The Act defines “free-flowing” as “existing or flowing without artificial impoundment, diversion, or other modification of the river.” The existence of minor structures, or even major dams located upstream or downstream of a specific segment, does not preclude a river from designation. Several rivers, such as the Klamath, Trinity, Eel, and lower American, are included in the System despite substantial flow modifications by existing upstream dams and impoundments.


The Act defines “river” as “the water, bed, and shorelin e of rivers, streams, channels, lakes, bays, estuaries, marshes, wetlands, and lagoons, up to the first line of permanently established riparian vegetation” (Sec. 5093.52[c]). The latter phrase (“up to the first line of permanently established riparian vegetation”) was added in a 1982 amendment and represents a reduction in the area of streambed and shoreline potential originally subject to the Act’s protection.

The Act defines “immediate environments” only generally as the land “immediately adjacent” to designated segments (Sec. 5093.52[h]). This definition, which was added in the 1982 amendments, represents a reduction in the land area originally subject to the Act’s protection.

Rivers or segments included with the system are classified by the Legislature as “wild”, “scenic”, or “recreational” based on the level of existing development when designated (Sec. 5093.53). The Resources Secretary may recommend classifications to the Legislature. “Wild” river segments are free of impoundment and generally are inaccessible except by trail, with primitive watersheds or shorelines and unpolluted waters. “Scenic” river segments are free of impoundment, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped but accessible in places by roads. “Recreational” river segments are readily accessible by road or railroad, may have some development along their shorelines, and may have been impounded or diverted in the past. The classification terms are a guide to the level of existing development, not a description of any particular values. For example, recreational river segments may not have an particular extraordinary recreational values.

Significant amendments to the Act in 1982 eliminated the mandate for management plans and defined the area protected to the first line of permanent riparian vegetation. The 1982 amendments also specified that the Legislature is responsible for classifying or reclassifying rivers by statute, although the Resources Secretary may recommend classifications (Sec. 5093.546). An amendment to the Act in 1986 established a study process modeled after the federal act to determine potential additions to the California System (Sec. 5093.547, 5093.548).

Based on subsequent studies required by the Legislature, segments of the East Carson and West Walker rivers were added to the system in 1989 (Sec. 5093.545). New dams, diversions, and reservoirs were prohibited on the McCloud River, although it was not formally included in the system (Sec. 5093.542). Similar “non-formal designation” protection against dams was provided Deer Creek and Mill Creek in 1995, in response to studies mandated by the Legislature (Sec. 5093.70). The Legislature added the South Yuba River to the state system without a study in 1999.


Water Impoundment Facilities


Walker River West Fork Eastern SierraNo dam, reservoir, diversion, or other water impoundment facility may be constructed on any river segment included in the system. Two exemptions to the dam prohibition are provided. The exemptions include temporary flood storage facilities on the Eel River and temporary recreational impoundments on river segments with a history of such impoundments. The Resources Secretary cannot authorize these temporary recreational impoundments without first making a number of findings (Sec. 5093.67).
Water Diversion Facilities

No water diversion facility may be constructed on any river segment included in the system unless the Resources Secretary determines that the facility is needed to supply domestic water to local residents and that the facility will not adversely affect the river’s free-flowing condition and natural character (Sec. 5093.55).
Non-Degradation Standard

Agencies of the State of California may not assist local, state, and federal agencies in the planning and construction of any dam, reservoir, diversion, or other water impoundment facility that could adversely affect the free-flowing condition and natural character of river segments included in the system (Sec. 5093.56) or of rivers otherwise protected under the Act (Secs. 5093.542, 5093.70).


 Water Rights


Designation does not affect existing water rights and facilities. Proposed changes in existing rights and facilities or applications for new water rights and facilities on designated segments are subject to the domestic use restriction and the non-degradation standard. Designated segments are considered fully appropriated streams by the California Division of Water Rights.

 Agency Responsibilities & Authority


Land Use -- State and local agencies must exercise their existing powers consistent with the Act’s policies and provisions (Sec. 5093.61). This provision ties the requirement of the Act to all other existing authorities. The Act does not, however, change the land use regulatory powers or authorities of State and local agencies granted by other laws (Sec. 5093.58).

Klamath by Tim PalmerFish & Wildlife -- The Act does not affect the State’s jurisdiction or responsibility over fish and wildlife (Sec. 5093.62).

Forestry -- Special treatment areas identifying significant resource features are established along rivers in the system (Sec. 5093.68) and are further defined in California’s Forest Practice Rules as a 200-foot wide area on each side of the designated river (14 CCR 895.1). Although the Act includes provisions for the temporary suspension of timber operations in special treatment areas, the Forest Practice Rules do not specifically prohibit or restrict forest practices in special treatment areas.

Eminent Domain -- The Act specifically prohibits the taking of private property for public uses without just compensation (Sec. 5093.63). The Act grants no additional eminent domain authority to state or local agencies. The Act has never been used in its 27-year history to condemn or otherwise take land.

Studies -- The Legislature may direct the Resources Agency to study and submit recommendations concerning the suitability of designating specified rivers (Sec. 5093.547). However, the Legislature may directly designate rivers without a study. The Resources Agency may also conduct studies funded by the Legislature and may make recommendations to the Legislature for protection and enhancement of the system (Sec. 5093.69).

Management --The 1982 amendments eliminated the requirement for management plans for designated rivers. However, the Resources Agency is required to coordinate activities affecting the system with other federal, state, and local agencies (Sec. 5093.69).
Comparison With The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act

The California Act was patterned after the 1968 National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The state and federal acts share similar criteria and definitions in regard to the purpose of protecting rivers, the identification of free flowing rivers and extraordinary or outstanding values suitable for protection, establishing a study process to include rivers in the system, as well as an identical classification system. The primary purpose of both the state and federal acts is to prohibit new water impoundments on designated rivers.

Cache Creek

However, the federal act establishes a river corridor averaging 320 acres per mile (approximately 1/4 mile on each side of the river) and requires federal agencies to manage the public lands in the corridor to protect the river’s free flowing character and outstanding values. In addition, the managing federal agency for federally designated rivers is required to develop and implement a management plan that will ensure the river’s protection. In contrast, the state act provides protection only to the first line of permanent riparian vegetation and does not require a management plan.

State designated rivers may be added to the federal system upon the request of the state’s Governor and the approval of the Secretary of the Interior (Sec. 2[a][ii] of the federal act). Adding state rivers to the federal system under this section does not require the approval of the Legislature or Congress. State rivers added to the federal system under this section are to be managed by the state. The river segments initially protected in the state system when it was established in 1972 -- the Smith, Klamath, Scott, Salmon, Trinity, Eel, Van Duzen, and American -- were added to the federal system in 1981 under this method. But later additions to the state system (including the East Carson, West Walker, and South Yuba) have not been subsequently added to the federal system.


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Rivers in the California Wild & Scenic Rivers System
  • Albion River
  • American River (Lower & North Fork)
  • Cache Creek
  • East Fork Carson River
  • Eel River (North, Middle, South Forks, main stem)
  • Gualala River
  • Klamath River
  • Salmon River (North & South Forks) & Wooley Creek
  • Scott River
  • Smith River (North, Middle, & South Forks) & Tributaries
  • South Yuba River
  • Van Duzen River
  • West Walker River & Leavitt Creek


River Information

Regional Maps

California Wild & Scenic Rivers Act

National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act

Scenic Rivers Act FAQ

River Safety Tips

River Gauges

River-Related Environmental Organizations

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