State Scenic Waterways

Renowned for its mountain ranges, diverse forests, and abundant waterways, Oregon is a land of endless superlatives.

One of the ways which Oregonians safeguard their natural heritage is through a series of conservation acts, either passed at the federal or state level.

McKenzie RiverThe Wilderness Act (1964) and National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968) are two of the nation's best-known conservation acts at the federal level. At the state level, the Oregon State Scenic Waterways Act similarly protects the clean drinking water, wild salmon, and scenic beauty which make Oregon a special place.

While the act was voted into law in 1970, it hasn't seen a major expansion since 1988. In addition, on a mile-by-mile basis, the law currently protects less than one percent of Oregon's rivers and streams from degradation.

In conjunction with our key coalition partners, Oregon Wild proposes expanding these key protections to a greater number of Oregon's most beloved and threatened waterways. Learn more about our State Scenic Waterway work with our fact sheet here. 

State Scenic Waterway Designation Campaign 

In the last two years, we have worked with coalition partners and lawmakers to restore the State Scenic Waterway designation program in Oregon. This designation protects waterways from threats such as dams and suction dredge mining, while enhancing fish and wildlife habitats and outdoor recreation opportunities. In 2016 we were able to get both the Molalla and Chetco Rivers designated under the Oregon Scenic Waterways Program, the first rivers to be designated since 1988.

We are continuing to work with state agencies, recreation groups, and conservation organizations to designate three of Oregon's most treasured rivers as State Scenic Waterways every biennium. Several of these rivers, including the Rogue, Illinois, and South Umpqua, are currently threatened by suction dredge mining operations, which is a floating system attached to a suction hose that sucks up the river bottom in search for gold. Suction dredge mining impacts waterways, fish and aquatic life, and stirs up sediments which can be harmful such as mercury. Oregon is justifiably famous for iconic rivers like the Umpqua, Rogue, Sandy, and others, and we have a duty as Oregonians to protect them from short-sighted, destructive uses.

One of our top priority rivers for designation is the Umpqua River, one of the longest undammed, free flowing rivers on the West Coast with direct access to the Pacific Ocean. This river provides numerous ecological and recreational benefits, including running through large swaths of rare old-growth forests, supporting healthy salmon runs, and providing economic opportunities through outdoor recreation.

Metolius Kayaker

The Umpqua is one of the main fishing areas in the region, specifically the southern portion. This river contains one of the last remaining wild runs of coastal spring Chinook in Oregon, winter steelhead, cutthroat trout, pacific lamprey, as well as coho salmon runs that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Once, the South Umpqua was home to thousands of spring Chinook. That number has dwindled to an average of 120 fish annual because of the use of dams, suction dredge mining, alteration of water flows, and stream blockage. Designating the Umpqua River as a State Scenic Waterway will protect the river from further placements of dams, reservoirs, and suction dredge mining operations. Not only is this area excellent fish habitat, but it also provides habitats for numerous types of wildlife, like elk, deer, hummingbirds, ducks, geese, and other water fowl.

The South Umpqua River provides high quality outdoor recreation opportunities, including floating and camping areas. There are segments that are traditionally used for river kayaking during the winter and spring, and there are numerous campgrounds along the river for public use. The State Scenic Waterway program requires that a designated river must possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, and fish and wildlife values, qualities that the Umpqua River has in abundance with its beautiful waterfalls and free-flowing waters that are used for fish runs and recreational floating.

The clean water and salmon runs of the Umpqua River have long been threatened by suction dredge mining. Suction dredge mining has destroyed quality of fish habitat, as well as impeded recreational use of the Umpqua River. In 2012 there was an estimated 500 dredge machines actively operating in the river system during the summer season. This river needs protection from these threats to protect the salmon runs, wildlife habitats, and recreation opportunities.

While there are portions of 22 rivers and lakes designated as scenic waterways in Oregon, less than 1% of Oregon's rivers and streams are protected by law from degradation on a mile-by-mile basis. We will continue to work to utilize and enhance the State Scenic Waterway designation program to protect water quality and salmon, enable Oregon jobs and tourism to the state, and significantly add to property values, quality of life, and recreational experiences.

Enabled By Popular Vote

Originally passed by popular vote in 1970 as a means to curb excessive dam-building on every free-flowing river and stream in the state, the Oregon Scenic Waterways System also sought to put in place stronger regulations for mining around the state's waterways.

Six river segments were part of the original 1970 system, including the Minam and John Day, the lower stretches of the Rogue and Illinois, four segments of the Deschutes, and two segments of the Owyhee.

The Sandy and Clackamas rivers followed in the 70s, with the North Fork Willamette, Waldo Lake and seven miles of the Little N. Fork Santium in the 80s.

Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, who shepherded a mammoth expansion of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers system through Congress in 1988, understood as an Oregonian the state's lifeblood is in its rivers and fresh, clean water.

No one today could argue with the wisdom of protecting such iconic and uniquely Oregonian waterways and locales.

McKenzie River

Photos top to bottom: McKenzie River rushes on a cold day (Stan Newman); a kayaker takes on Wizard Falls on the Metolius River (Leon Werdinger); a beautiful fall day on the McKenzie River (John Goodyear).