Center for Biological Diversity

River & Watershed Protection

photo by Robin Silver
San Pedro River

Advocating for Fish Stocking Reform

Verde River Campaign

center moves to stop glen canyon's destruction

Rivers We Protect

River Obligate Species We Protect

Coming Soon

  • Gila River
  • Rio Grande
  • Salt River
  • Kern River

Wild and Scenic Rivers Act


The protection of rivers and streamside habitats has been a priority for the Center for Biological Diversity since its founding. We work to improve and restore rivers throughout the West and to ensure the survival of imperiled river-dependent species.


Freshwater is the difference between life and death for all animals, including humans. And the vast majority of American freshwater sources have been transformed beyond recognition by dam construction, pollution, cattle grazing, development, and water diversions. The country's wildest and most majestic free-flowing rivers and streams have been ruthlessly converted to massive plumbing systems, choked by dams and reservoirs. River ecosystems have collapsed, driving numberless species extinct.


The United States is a nation of dams. More than 60,000 major dams have been constructed here in the last century, strangling nearly all of our greatest rivers and reducing many of them-including the Colorado, Mississippi, Columbia, and Tennessee-to little more than a series of reservoirs. The few rivers and streams that still flow free are often severely degraded by livestock grazing, energy development, logging, and mining. Although efforts to decommission dams now outnumber those to build them, our remnant free-flowing rivers and streams will not be truly safe from dam proposals and other threats unless they are given permanent protection. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act provides for this protection.

But a few undammed and beautiful wild rivers remain, and the Center is working to protect them-as well as to restore major compromised rivers throughout the western states. We have two far-reaching and ambitious campaigns to improve the condition of rivers and streamsides across the country and increase their capacity to support life: the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program and the Western Trout Campaign.


Our Wild and Scenic Rivers Program harnesses the potential of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act-a powerful and largely neglected law-to restore and protect rivers across the country by keeping them safe from dams, water diversions, logging damage and other forms of harm. The program has compelled national forests in New Mexico to protect more than 500 river miles, and the Center is rapidly expanding its advocacy for wild and scenic rivers into other southwestern states as well as the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest.


Preserving our remaining free-flowing rivers is essential to the preservation of wildlife, especially native fish and other endangered species in the arid West. But the situation is desperate: three-quarters of Arizona's 34 species of native fish are now in danger of extinction. Across the West, every species of trout has suffered considerable population declines and most occupy less than 10% of their historical range; dams have played a large role in declines for nearly all of these species. Protecting rivers from further dams and habitat destruction will be essential to preventing these species' extinction.

Passed in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Act is the nation's most sweeping river protection law, absolutely prohibiting dam construction and requiring protection of river habitat from other threats such as rampant livestock grazing, logging, and construction of power lines once a river is legally designated "wild and scenic." Since its passage, nearly 11,000 miles of river on 158 river segments have been so designated. These rivers have been concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, California, and Alaska, leaving the Southwest, Midwest, Rocky Mountains and other regions with very few wild and scenic designations. The Center is working to redress this imbalance and get more rivers in these places protected.

Our Western Trout Campaign, launched with Pacific Rivers and Trout Unlimited, is the first-ever initiative aimed at protecting all endangered trout species across the West. The Campaign has produced a comprehensive report on the status of native trout populations, and a slew of Center actions that have resulted in improved management of native trout streams, trout reintroductions, and protected status for high-risk populations.

The Center's broader advocacy program for river-dependent species, including the California red-legged frog, Arroyo Southwestern toad, and Arkansas River shiner, has yielded millions of acres and thousands of river miles of habitat protection over the past three years. In response to legal action by the Center and our allies, 2,200 stream miles in California and southern Oregon were protected as critical habitat for the coho salmon, now extinct in much of its range due to overfishing and habitat destruction. In the Gila River basin in New Mexico and Arizona, our work has removed cattle from 350 miles of fragile streamsides and propelled the protection of 900 river miles of habitat. Regrowth of vegetation since the removal of livestock has transformed a barren moonscape into a lush, living forest-and-stream wilderness.


Tucson Center staffer Sonya Diehn has recently completed an independent video entitled Oasis Under Siege: A Journey Through the Dying River, exploring the causes and consequences of disappearing water in the southwest. Featuring Robin Silver, Conservation Chair for the Center for Biological Diversity, Oasis Under Siege highlights the Center's challenge to Arizona water law, which has failed to protect imperiled desert riparian areas -- ninety-five percent of which have already vanished -- from excessive groundwater pumping. Weaving together personal narrative, interviews with experts, and the story of a couple living on the Cañada del Oro Northwest of Tucson, Oasis Under Siege is not only testimony to the significance of water in the desert, but also an urgent call for the reform of water law in Arizona.

For the remainder of 2003, Sonya will be distributing copies and scheduling screenings throughout Arizona. Contact her if you are interested in purchasing a copy or hosting a showing in your community. The video is also available for ordering and viewing in streaming format at

After years of grassroots activity, legal notices and intense negotiations, the Center and our coalition partners, including the Yavapai-Apache Nation, brought about the decision to remove of several diversion dams and closure of an environmentally destructive power plant at Fossil Creek in central Arizona, the best native fish restoration area in the state. The creek had been dammed for more than 90 years, leaving its entire 14-mile length dry and the surrounding ecosystem devastated. Under the terms of the coalition's agreement, the power plant will be decommissioned by 2004 and this extraordinary wild place restored by 2009. For more information on the Center's work on specific rivers, click on the list below.