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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA): Protections, Federal Water Rights, and Development Restrictions

Cynthia Brougher
Legislative Attorney

Congress enacted the WSRA as part of a myriad of environmental conservation legislation enacted in the 1960s and 1970s. The act provides protection to certain rivers within the United States in order to balance the tendency toward development of the nation’s rivers for industry or recreation. The act declares it to be the policy of the United States that certain rivers that possess “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition.” The act further provides that “the established national policy of dam and other construction be complemented by a policy that would preserve other selected rivers ... in their free-flowing condition to protect the water quality of such rivers and to fulfill other vital national conservation purposes.”

Under the act, rivers meeting certain criteria may be designated for inclusion in a national rivers system and classified for specific protections. A river may be classified as wild (the most primitive rivers with the most restrictive protections), scenic (rivers with some access with intermediate protections), or recreational (rivers with some development with the most lenient protections). Designated federal agencies issue comprehensive management plans to ensure the protected values of the river. In order to accomplish the goals of the act, the WSRA uses two main methods of protection: water rights to maintain flows and restrictions on development for federal projects to preserve the natural path of the rivers.

This report analyzes the federal government’s authority under the WSRA to maintain and preserve designated rivers. It provides an overview of the WSRA and the process by which rivers are designated and administered under the act. It also examines the use of federal water rights under the act to ensure instream flows and the prohibitions on development of rivers for federal projects.

Date of Report: December 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: R41081
Price: $29.95

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