The California State Wild and Scenic River Act:
What is it, and what is it not?


The California Wild and 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.

The Act declares (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 the 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."

Initial passage in 1972 incorporated major portions of the Smith, Klamath, Trinity, Eel, and American rivers. Subsequent legislation included the East Carson, West Walker, and McCloud in 1989; Deer Creek and Mill Creek in 1995; and the South Yuba in 1999.



"wild" (Sec. 5093.53)

Wild rivers are free of impoundment and generally are inaccessible except by trail, with primitive watersheds or shorelines and unpolluted waters.

"scenic" (Sec. 5093.53)

Scenic rivers are free of impoundment, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped but accessible in places by roads.

"recreational" (Sec. 5093.53)

Recreational rivers are readily accessible by road or railroad, may have some development along their shorelines, and may have been impounded or diverted in the past.

"free-flowing" (Sec. 5093.52[c])

Free flowing rivers are "existing or flowing without artificial impoundment, diversion, or other modification of the river."
Note: The existence of minor structures does not ban a river from being considered for inclusion in the State System.  The Klamath, Trinity, Eel and Lower American, are included in the System despite substantial flow modifications by existing upstream dams and impoundments.

"river" (Sec. 5093.52[c]).

The Act defines river as "the water, bed, and shorelines of rivers, streams, channels, lakes, bays, estuaries, marshes, wetlands, and lagoons, up to the first line of permanently established riparian vegetation."

"immediate environments" (Sec 5093.52[h]).

The Act defines immediate environments only generally as the land "immediately adjacent" to the designated segments (Sec 5093.52[h]).


Further Implications

Water Impoundments
No dam, reservoir, diversion, or other water impoundment facility may be constructed on any river included in the System. The prohibition of impoundment does not apply to construction of temporary impoundments for recreational purposes on segments of rivers with a history of these impoundments. The Resources Secretary cannot authorize these temporary recreation impoundments without first making a number of findings (Sec 5093.67).
Agencies of the State of California may not assist other government agencies in the planning, and construction of any water impoundment facility that could adversely affect the free-flowing condition and natural character of rivers included in the System (Sec.5093.56).

Water Diversion Facilities
No water diversion facility may be constructed on any river 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)

Land Use
State and local agencies must exercise their existing powers consistent with the Actıs 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 the authorities of State and local agencies granted by other laws (Sec. 5093.58).

Fish & Wildlife
The Act does not affect the State's jurisdiction or responsibility over fish and wildlife (Sec. 5093.62).
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).

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.

The 1982 Amendments to the Act 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). The state act provides protection to the first line of permanent riparian vegetation and does not require a management plan.