Wild and Scenic

The preeminent tool for permanently conserving high-value, free-flowing rivers

Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) in 1968, at the height of the modern dam-building era.

This was in order to ensure that the construction of new dams on rivers is balanced with the protection of select free-flowing rivers that possess nationally significant values. This landmark law is the highest form of protection for rivers in the United States. In the words of Congress: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” These days the WSRA is also often applied to headwaters streams which represent most of the best clean, cold and connected rivers that remain in the country.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects rivers in five major ways:

1. It prohibits the construction of new federally-licensed dams and water development projects

2. It ensures water quality is maintained or enhanced

3. It restricts activities that would harm a river’s unique set of “outstandingly remarkable values” (ORVs)

4. It can create a junior, federally-reserved water right for the minimum amount of flow necessary to maintain a river’s ORVs

5. It requires the development of a Comprehensive River Management Plan to guide management along designated rivers for a period of 10-20 years.

Typically, a river’s journey to Wild and Scenic designation starts by being categorized as “eligible” for designation by the federal land management agency that oversees it during a resource management plan revision, although Congress has designated many rivers that were not previously found eligible for protection. Any section of river that is found to be free-flowing and in possession of at least one “outstandingly remarkable value” (ORV) must be found eligible for Wild and Scenic protection, and those ORVs must be protected by the land management agency for the life of the resource management plan, typically 15-20 years.

Rivers can be added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in one of two ways. The most common way is for Congress to pass legislation that is signed into law by the President. The less traditional way is for the Governor of a state to petition the Secretary of the Interior to add a river to the system, but that only applies in states that have their own state protected river systems.

Colorado has approximately 107,403 miles of river, of which 76 miles or one river are designated as wild & scenic—less than 1/10th of 1% of the state’s river miles. Less than ½ of 1% of Colorado’s rivers are protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. As of March 2019, the National System protects 13,413 miles of 226 rivers in 41 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. By comparison, more than 90,000 large dams across the country have modified at least 700,000 miles of rivers in the U.S. Colorado’s only Wild and Scenic River so far, the Cache la Poudre, was designated in 1986.

Less than ½ of 1% of our rivers are protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.