Protection for Wild Rivers

About the time that President Reagan was taking his oath for a second term Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court made final one of the last acts of the Carter Administration: inclusion of five Northern California streams into the national wild and scenic rivers system.

There was more than a little controversy concerning the wild-river designation covering all or portions of the Eel, Klamath, Trinity, Smith and American. And there is more than a little irony in the timing of the court’s decision. Back on Jan. 19, 1980, the outgoing Interior secretary, Cecil D. Andrus, signed the order on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration knowing that it was then or never. At least, Andrus knew, his immediate successors were not likely to approve the request of then-California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Indeed, the new Interior secretary, James G. Watt, protested and threatened to cancel the directive. He yielded on that score, but California water agencies and farm groups sued. They contended that Andrus had not completed the proper paperwork needed to make the order final.

A district judge sided with the plaintiffs, but was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that the objections were trivial. The Supreme Court settled the issue by letting the circuit court’s judgment stand.


The decision comes as a disappointment to California water agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Nearly a third of all California’s water flows from these five streams into the Pacific. The water engineers long have coveted these supplies, particularly those of the Eel, for future use in the Central Valley and Southern California. It may be as soon as 20 years from now that this water will be needed, a Farm Bureau official threatened.

That is not likely. What the ruling does is limit somewhat the long-term options of MWD and other agencies for augmenting supplies, and keep their attention focused on more immediate and realistic solutions.

Too often in California a river is a meek watercourse that links a series of dams and reservoirs. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the north coast rivers will continue to run free.