User Guide for pdf.qxd

User Guide for pdf.qxd
Riparian Areas:
A U s e r ’s G u i d e t o H e a l t h
Authors: Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Norine Ambrose
W h a t ’s i n t h i s G u i d e ?
In this User’s Guide to Health you’ll find:
! An introduction to riparian area health
! Help in determining what is a riparian area
! Information on what riparian areas do, and why this is
important to us
! A wake-up call for riparian health
! How to tune your eye so you know what is measured
and how to use the results of riparian health evaluation
! Taking the next step - where to begin to improve
riparian area health
! Standing back and looking at the bigger picture - the
! Where to find additional information, resources and
Fitch, L. and N. Ambrose 2003. Riparian Areas: A User’s Guide to Health.
Lethbridge, Alberta: Cows and Fish Program.
ISBN No. 0-7785-2305-5
Ta b l e o f C o n t e n t s
What is Riparian Health. . . and why do we need to measure it?
Show me the Riparian Area
What do Healthy Riparian Areas Do?
Key Ecological Functions
Products, Services and Benefits
Riparian Health - A Wake Up Call
Riparian health - Why Does it Matter?
Where are We? Current Health Status and Future Goals
Tuning Your Eye - Diagnosis for Riparian Health
Riparian Health Questions
Common Concepts behind the Measurements - What are the Key Pieces?
How Do I Check the Health of my Riparian Area?
Is My Crick Sick? Is My Lakeshore Lame?
Take the Next Step - Link Measurement to Action
Medical Guidebook - A Key to Symptoms and Treatments
Riparian Revival
The Bigger Picture - Thinking Like a Watershed
Where to Find Additional Information and Resources
Cows and Fish Partners
This booklet has been written for those people who
can most effectively influence lakeshores, stream
and river banks, wetlands and other riparian areas
with their use and management - farmers, ranchers,
cottage owners, resource managers and others who
work and play in the “green zone”. Consider this an
introduction to the concept of “health” - how well are
these productive, valuable and sometimes fragile
green zones performing many critical ecological
functions essential to our needs? To evaluate health
you need some tools, and you need to understand
how the tools are used.
Riparian areas include the moist green zones that
surround lakes and wetlands.
The emerald threads of vegetation that border rivers
and streams are the riparian areas.
This User’s Guide will take you from the checklists
to the measuring sticks of riparian health. Riparian
health evaluation forms part of a larger package of
awareness about riparian areas, leading to choices
on managing these vital landscapes. This work is
part of the Cows and Fish program, a cooperative
effort between many organizations and agencies
concerned about the health and management of
riparian areas. Cows and Fish works to foster
awareness about riparian areas, and how
improvements in management can enhance
landscape health and productivity, for the benefit of
landowners and others who use and value these
green zones.
These are two riparian areas at different
locations on the same stream.
Our eyes tell us one looks different from the other. Often we
perceive there is a difference, but it may not be clear what is
missing from one picture. We may struggle to convey our
impressions of the scene to someone else because we lack the
words to describe what we see. A riparian area may be green
and that may disguise some problems or distract us from noticing
some of the missing pieces. It would help us to be able to
recognize the missing pieces and describe them to others.
That’s what riparian health is about, being able to recognize the
critical pieces of a riparian area and to measure those pieces.
We can then determine if the system is in good condition and
functioning as it should. If the system isn’t functioning, an
understanding of what pieces are missing, or impaired, may help
our management efforts, to restore the riparian area to a
healthier state.
What do
you see?
As you begin to train your eyes, you might
notice that the riparian area on the left is missing
young trees and shrubs and other deep-rooted
plants. On the right these are present and
glue the streambank together. That’s a
good start to an understanding of
riparian health.
What is Riparian Health?
. . . and why do we need to measure it?
The word “health” conveys an impression of something in properly
functioning condition - things working well. If health is applied to us, it
relates to the ability of our bodies to perform certain functions within a measured
set of standards. Our bodies undertake functions like respiration, circulation,
digestion, filtration, cell repair, movement and many more. If these functions are
occurring, within some standards, we consider ourselves healthy. In a similar way,
landscapes, including riparian areas, perform certain functions. “Riparian health”
means the ability of a reach of stream, a lakeshore, a wetland or a watershed
(composed of many different riparian areas), to perform a number of key
ecological functions. We’ll describe all of these functions in “What do riparian
areas do?”. Some examples of these functions include maintenance of
biodiversity (building habitat), creation of primary productivity (forage, shelter) and
water quality improvement (filtering and buffering water).
Why do we need to measure riparian health?
Because we don’t all
“see” the same thing!
When we look at a riparian area, what we see and how we interpret our
observations is often based on our backgrounds, experiences and perceptions.
Even though we may be standing on the same streambank or lakeshore, we don’t
often “see” all of the same things, or the total picture. Because of our own unique
focus we interpret the scene differently and sometimes argue with others over their
perception of the riparian picture versus our own.
Riparian health evaluations allow us all to “tune our
eyes”, to calibrate our observations with others, begin
to appreciate the key pieces of the riparian landscape
and assess what we see. These are ecological
“measuring sticks” that provide some structure to our
observations and allow us to determine the condition
(or health) of our riparian areas.
We need to use
riparian health evaluations to
build a common language so we
can communicate better with one
another, maybe reduce the arguments
and move toward fixing what is broken
in riparian areas and maintaining what
is healthy. Understanding each
other is a critical step towards
moving down that road
If you have a
riparian area,
please listen.
S h ow
the Riparian Area
You’ve seen them, crossed them, and walked in them; you may live on
one. Riparian areas are the green zones around lakes and wetlands,
the emerald threads of vegetation that border rivers and streams and the
lush fringe in valleys. Riparian areas are transitional; they exist between
the surface water of a river, wetland or lake and the surrounding drier
upland. Think of them as “wetter than dry” but “drier than wet”. Riparian
areas are rarely uniform and show lots of variation. What is common to
all of them is the interaction of water, soil and vegetation. A combination
of the following clues will help you solve the mystery of what is “riparian”.
of water is
present, seasonally or
regularly and that water
is either on the surface
or it’s close to the
Riparian areas are called many things. These are some of the terms used to describe them: shores, floodplain, bottomland, bogs,
muskeg, slough, wetland, seep, floodprone, marsh, pothole and spring. Lentic riparian areas are associated with still water
systems like lakes and wetlands. Lotic riparian areas are found along rivers and streams.
is present that
responds to, requires
and survives in
abundant water.
have been modified
by abundant water (as in
high water tables), stream
or lake processes (like
sediment deposition) and
lush, productive
Riparian areas are part of a larger, continuous
landscape that grades from wet to dry. They are
the thin, green line in that landscape transition.
Despite their small size (2-5%) riparian areas are
a key piece of the landscape because they are
the buffer, the edge and the border between uplands and the
aquatic zone. Riparian areas buffer the impacts of uplands on the
aquatic area as well as protect uplands from erosion. To measure
the health of the riparian area and it’s ability to be the critical
buffer, you need to understand what is “riparian”.
Riparian areas on streams and rivers can be quite
wide, reflecting high ground water tables, flood
history and the profile of the valley.
Riparian areas on lakes and wetlands include emergent vegetation like
cattails, as well as the vegetation on the wetter portion of the shoreline.
it isn’t easy to
determine precisely the
border, edge and size of the
riparian area, especially
where land use has
modified some of the
Look for the WATER
High water level
Normal water level
Low water level
What do
h e a l t hy R i p a r i a n A r e a s
When we look at a piece of riparian landscape, we focus on what it does for us. We think about
opportunities to fish, graze livestock, or a place to find shelter or shade. As we begin to
understand how key riparian areas are, we begin to add water quality, water supply, fish and
wildlife habitat, recreation, property value and many more attributes to the list of riparian
products, services or values.
A long list of benefits is made possible when eight fundamental ecological
functions are performed in healthy riparian areas. These functions are the
foundation upon which everything else is built. When all are present, these
functions mesh together, like a finely crafted Swiss watch. Riparian health
evaluation helps us focus on what produces the benefits - a healthy,
functioning riparian landscape. Riparian health represents how well all of
these basic functions are being performed.
A watch keeps the time for us - that’s
the service. It does this through the correct
meshing of many interconnected parts. We depend on riparian areas to
do many things for us. Their ability to do these things also depends on
the correct meshing of a complex series of interconnected functions.
What do Riparian Areas Do?
K ey E c o l o g i c a l F u n c t i o n s
1. Trap &
Sediment adds to and builds soil in riparian areas.
Sediment aids in the ability of soils to hold and store moisture.
Sediment can carry contaminants and nutrients - trapping it
improves water quality.
Excess sediment can harm aquatic animals like fish and insects.
2. Bu
ild &
Erosion is balanced with bank building - the effects of erosion are reduced by adding bank and
shore elsewhere.
Increase stability, resilience and recovery.
Maintain or restore profile of channel - extends width of riparian area through higher water tables.
3. Store Water &
aintain anks & Shorel
Watershed safety valve - storage of high water on the
floodplain during floods.
Reduce flood damage by slowing water and reducing
Slow flood water allowing absorption and storage in
underground aquifer.
4 . Re
charge Aquifers
Store, hold and slowly release water.
Maintain surface flows in rivers and streams and levels
in lakes and wetlands through storage and slow release.
Maintain high water table and extend width of productive
riparian area.
Buffer W
5. F
Reduce amount of contaminants,
nutrients and pathogens reaching
the water.
Uptake and absorption of nutrients
by riparian plants.
Trap sediment, reduce water
quality issues and enhance
amount of vegetation to perform
filtering and buffering function.
6. Re
duce &
in Biodiver
Dissipate Energy
Reduce water velocity, which slows erosion and
sediment transport.
Resist erosion and slow channel and shoreline
Aid in sediment capture.
Create and maintain habitats for
fish, wildlife, invertebrates and
Connect other habitats to allow
corridors for movement and
Maintain a high number of
individuals and species.
8. C r
eate P
rimary Productivit
Vegetation diversity and age-class structure
creates links to other riparian functions.
High shelter and forage values.
Enhance soil development .
Capture and recycle nutrients.
These are the basic functions; read on to
see how they translate into products,
services and benefits.
Riparian Products, Services
& Benefits
1. Trap and store sediment
2. Build banks and shores
3. Store water and energy
4. Recharge aquifers
5. Filter and buffer water
6. Reduce energy
7. Maintain biodiversity
8. Create primary productivity
When all of these functions mesh together, in healthy
riparian zones, look at what comes out of the tap. . .
Riparian Health
Wa k e U p
Some of the changes to a landscape occur slowly, over periods of time beyond an individual’s memory.
Because of this, sometimes we fail to notice that change, even deterioration, has happened.
This 1890 photograph of Willow Creek is
an image of health; woody vegetation is
abundant and diverse.
This 1920’s photograph of Sylvan Lake is
an image of health; the water was clear, clean
and enjoyed by many.
Almost 100 years later, this same site on Willow
Creek shows substantial change, although some
remnant woody species still persist.
In recent times many central Alberta lakes
show signs of water quality problems.
These changes may affect us, our lives, livelihood, health and recreation. When we begin to recognize riparian
condition it is a start towards changing the trend from one of decline to stability and perhaps improvement in
health. If you drink water, farm or ranch, have a lakeside cottage, swim, fish or watch birds, riparian area health
is important to you. Riparian areas make up a small portion of the landscape, but are much more important to
us than their small size would indicate.
Riparian Health - Why Does it Matter?
We depend on not only our own health to sustain us, but on the health of the environment in which we live. Riparian health matters
for the same reason our own health matters! Healthy, functioning riparian areas offer us:
! Resiliency - the ability to bounce back from floods, droughts and human-caused
! Ecological services - a long list of goods, benefits and values; and
! Stability - landscapes that maintain themselves, persist and are sustainable.
Why focus on riparian areas? They are the focus because of their agricultural benefits, the
biodiversity values they represent and for
concerns about water quality. Some riparian
areas have declined in their ability to perform the
ecological functions that relate directly to these
benefits and values. Often the health of these
valuable landscapes has changed over time,
even though that decline isn’t obvious. We need
to understand the current status of riparian areas
to improve or maintain their health. The first step
is to determine the condition or health of the site.
Once we know the health of a site, we have
a way to link management actions and
changes to improve or maintain
Riparian health evaluations
ecological function.
provide a standard method to allow landowners, resource managers and
others to quickly assess current health and to identify the presence, scale and
magnitude of issues and problems.
Lights go on!
Riparian health evaluations can be repeated, over
time, to monitor changes that may result from natural
variation or management actions and choices.
Assessment can be a
catalyst to begin
management changes
to correct declines in
riparian health or to
verify and continue
maintains health.
Riparian health evaluations are an educational tool, to allow those that use,
manage and value riparian areas to better understand key functions, identify a
way to measure those functions and to serve as a vehicle for better communication
among riparian users. Sometimes even the cows join in.
Riparian health matters!
A r e We ?
C u r r e n t Health
F u t u r e Goals
Riparian areas change naturally over time. What we do in them and in the
watersheds that surround them can speed up many of those changes.
Sometimes the speed and degree of change is greater than the natural
resiliency and healing rate of riparian areas. Development can cause
streams to erode their banks faster, flows may fluctuate more and
downcutting can dry up productive riparian areas. These changes are
compounded in lakes and wetlands with accumulations of sediments and
nutrients, water level fluctuations and a speeding up of the ageing process.
If we acknowledge that riparian areas change and that we are responsible
for some of these changes, it is a step towards setting goals for tomorrow’s
riparian areas. Sometimes looking back gives us a vision of where we need
to go. Goal setting begins by asking three questions:
Riparian health is described in the following
HEALTHY; all riparian functions are
being performed
functions are being performed but signs
of stress are apparent
UNHEALTHY; most functions are
severely impaired or have been lost
Where were we?
Where are we today?
Where do we want to be?
Where We Were
There is no simple answer to the question
“how healthy were riparian areas in the
past?”. What is available to help us
includes the written accounts of the observations by explorers,
surveyors, fur traders, naturalists and the Northwest Mounted
Police. Some early artwork exists and early photographs of the
last part of the 1800s provide another visual window. We know
from historical accounts that there were disturbances like
buffalo grazing, fire, drought and floods affecting riparian
health. From those same records we understand that beaver
populations were much higher historically than now. The effect
of beavers on riparian health was probably positive, especially
through the maintenance of higher water tables that would
have enhanced the amount of woody vegetation. By looking at
riparian sites today we can also gain insight into vegetation
potential - what could have existed on the site.
Past - 1801
Based on all of these bits of evidence we can speculate that prior to settlement riparian
areas were mostly healthy. Natural events such as floods, grazing from native ungulates, fire,
drought, beavers and landslides did affect riparian condition and the results of these disturbances
meant health could vary over time and from reach to reach. Because of the natural resilience of these
systems and the long return intervals between use or disturbance, it is likely that ecological function was restored relatively quickly.
Where We Are
Information on riparian health has been
collected in the settled portion of Alberta
since 1995, on over 150 streams, rivers,
lakes and wetlands. Measurements have been done
randomly, so as not to bias the results and reaches are
selected that are representative of much larger portions of
the riparian landscape. More than 1000 reaches have been
inventoried, representing over 2000 km of riparian areas
along streams and rivers and around wetlands and lakes.
The measurements indicate that about 11% of Alberta’s
riparian areas are healthy, 49% are healthy, with problems and
40% are unhealthy. Those figures tell us that riparian function is
compromised in many of our watersheds. The results for Alberta are mirrored
by the measurements for Saskatchewan and numerous states including
Montana and Idaho. Lights are flashing; these results suggest we have issues
to deal with that go well beyond what could be expected in the natural variation
of riparian health.
Present - 2002
Where We Need to Be
Healthy riparian areas sustain us, especially their
ability to store, filter and buffer water, combined with
their agricultural and biodiversity values. Sustaining
ourselves will require maintaining healthy riparian areas and restoring
many that have declined in health.
What should our goals be for riparian health? Clearly we all want these
landscapes to be resilient, stable and provide us a long list of ecological
services, whether we are livestock producers, farmers, anglers, bird
watchers, cottage owners, hikers or downstream water drinkers.
Riparian health can vary across the province, from stream to stream and
around a lake, ranging from healthy to unhealthy. Some of this variation
relates to how riparian areas evolved. However, our use of these
landscapes represents an additive and cumulative effect which has often
compromised resiliency. That effect could be a consequence of what
has happened on the reach or what has happened upstream or
downstream. Additional variation in riparian health is due to our use of
these areas. In some cases, that use has lead to a decline in condition.
Our goals need to reflect that agriculture, urban development,
transportation networks, recreational use, industrial uses and water
management will have impacts and we cannot return to presettlement
conditions. However, we should see progressively better riparian health
as we adopt better land use practices, phase out some land uses and
restore function to riparian landscapes. We will find that maintaining and
restoring riparian health will have significant benefits.
We will either get the future we planned for. . .
or . . . the one we didn’t plan for.
Tu n i n g Yo u r
E ye
Diagnosis for Riparian Health
Riparian health evaluations tune your eyes and allow you to see the
components or pieces that contribute significantly to health or, when
missing or degraded, impair ecological functions, the foundation of health.
Riparian Health Questions
What is measured? These characteristics are evaluated to
assess the health of riparian areas along streams and rivers or
around lakes and wetlands:
How much of the riparian area
is covered by vegetation?
Vegetation reduces the erosive force
of raindrops and the velocity of water
moving over a floodplain, along a
streambank or onto a lakeshore.
Think of vegetation like a mesh
umbrella that slows and blunts the
force of moving water.
Vegetation cover:
! reduces erosion;
! traps sediment and stabilizes
banks and shores;
! absorbs and recycles nutrients;
! allows water to infiltrate to refill
and recharge aquifers;
! reduces the rate of evaporation;
! provides shelter and forage
The amount and type of vegetation
present determines how well these
services are performed.
>95% cover
80% cover
<75% cover
runoff and
As vegetation cover diminishes, the
amount of runoff and sediment
increases. That can affect water quality
and quantity.
runoff and
How much of the riparian area is covered by weeds
(invasive plant species)?
Weeds are alien species; they have been
imported from elsewhere and their introduction
causes both economic and environmental harm.
Invasive plants include “noxious” or “restricted”
weeds. Weeds invade riparian areas where
disturbance has created bare soil. The presence
of weeds can indicate a threat to health. No
weeds indicate the riparian area is well vegetated,
there is no bare soil and there is no seed source.
Several weeds indicate space is available and
there is a threat of quick invasion. Many weeds
signal the system is degraded.
Invasive plants may contribute marginally to some
riparian functions, but their negative impacts
reduce overall health. They are not present in
early spring to trap sediment or protect banks and
shorelines from runoff. Their presence inhibits
other important and beneficial species that
contribute to bank and shore stability, biodiversity
and primary productivity.
How much of the riparian area is covered by
disturbance-caused vegetation?
Disturbance-caused species are plants which are
absent, or present in small amounts, in undisturbed
areas, but invade reaches with high levels of use or
disturbance. A large cover of these plants, either
native or introduced, indicates an alteration of the
normal plant community that would be expected to
occur on the site.
Like invasive plants,
disturbance-caused species are well adapted to an
environment of continual stress, where the
competitive advantage of better riparian species
has been diminished. These species have more
value than invasive plants, but are usually;
! shallow-rooted and less productive;
! have limited value for bank binding and
erosion prevention; and
! inhibit other preferred plants.
Is woody vegetation present and maintaining itself?
Most, but not all, riparian areas can support woody
vegetation (trees and shrubs). Trees and shrubs
have an important and key role in riparian condition.
Their root systems generally are excellent bank and
shoreline stabilizers and play a key role in the
uptake of nutrients that could otherwise degrade
water quality. The canopies formed by trees and
shrubs protect soil from erosion, provide shelter to
wildlife and livestock, and modify the riparian
environment. Even when dead the trunks provide
erosion protection and structural complexity which
plays a role in modifying stream valleys. A good
indicator of the ecological stability of a riparian reach
is the presence of woody plants in all age classes,
especially young age classes. Without signs of
regeneration of preferred woody plants (those
species that contribute most to riparian condition
and stability) the long-term stability of the reach is
These poplar seedlings and
saplings represent new age
classes of trees that will replace
the older individuals in the
Some trees and shrubs just aren’t the right stuff.
They don’t do as good a job of gluing banks and
shores together, they reflect a history of disturbance
(e.g. rose, snowberry) and some are exotic,
aggressive species (e.g. Russian Olive, Tamarisk)
we don't need or want in riparian areas.
What will replace these
trees in the next few
Is woody vegetation being used?
Because woody species have such an important role to play in riparian
health, measuring use helps us understand whether they will persist in
the reach. Livestock will often browse woody plants, especially in late
summer, fall and winter. Wildlife, including beaver, make use of woody
plants year-round. Mowing, trimming and logging remove woody
species. Woody plants can sustain low levels of use, but heavier
browsing or removal can:
! deplete root reserves;
! inhibit establishment and regeneration;
! cause the loss of preferred woody species;
! lead to replacement by less desirable woody species; and
! lead to invasion by disturbance or weed species.
Beaver activity, for
food and dam
building, is an
example of
utilization of woody
Many animals browse woody
plants, including domestic livestock.
There is an old stockman’s saying: “If you keep down the shoot, you’ll
kill the root”. Grazing or browsing too much of the leafy material, the
collectors of solar energy, will wear the plant down and reduce it’s
ability to store energy in it’s roots for the next season. Long-term,
heavy use eliminates the best woody plants.
How much dead wood is there?
The number of dead trees and shrubs or the amount of dead branches
in their canopies can be a signal of declining health of a riparian reach.
A number of factors could be contributing to this:
! Large amounts of dead wood may indicate a change in water flow
through the system due to either human or natural causes;
! De-watering of a reach, if severe enough, can dry the reach,
changing vegetation potential from riparian to upland species;
! Flooding of a reach, or a persistent high water table, from beaver
dams, crossings that restrict flow or man-made dams can kill and
eliminate some riparian species;
! Heavy use of browse can stress woody plants, resulting in their
eventual death;
! Physical damage from rubbing and trampling, if chronic, can result
in the death of woody vegetation; and
! Climatic impacts (drought), weather (severe winters), disease and
insect infestations can affect woody vegetation.
In all these cases, a high percentage of dead wood reflects declining
vegetation health. This can lead to reduced streambank integrity,
increased channel incisement, excessive bank and shoreline erosion
and reduced shelter values.
A water level
increase from a
beaver dam flooded
and killed these
This willow has been severely
browsed, rubbed and trampled by
Are streambanks and lakeshores held together with
deep-rooted vegetation?
Streamside vegetation maintains the integrity and structure
of the streambank by dissipating energy, resists erosion and
traps sediment to build and restore banks. On lakeshores
and wetland margins, vegetation resists wave action, ice
movement and traps sediment.
Kentucky bluegrass roots
have very limited bank
holding capabilities.
Only deep-binding roots, such as
those of willows, can protect
shorelines from ice, wind and
wave erosion.
Root systems bind soil particles together and provide the
glue that stabilizes the zone where stream flow and wave
energy have the most consistent, regular effect. Vegetation
with deep and binding roots best accomplishes this
function, especially if there is a diversity of these species
found on the reach. Most tree and shrub species provide
such deep roots. Herbaceous annuals and weeds lack this
quality. Perennial herbs provide it in varying degree. Some
species, such as sedges, are excellent streambank
stabilizers, while others, such as Kentucky bluegrass and
timothy, have shallow root systems and have limited
How much of the riparian area has bare ground caused by
human activity?
Bare ground is unprotected soil that results from our
activities. It’s an opportunity for invasion by weed and
disturbance species into the vacuum caused by those
activities. Bare ground represents a loss of vegetation
to filter and buffer sediment, less reduction in energy
(hence more wind and water erosion) and a decreased
ability to allow water to infiltrate into the aquifer.
Sediment deposited during a flood is a natural event
and an indication the riparian area is doing what it
should- trapping this material.
These riparian areas are very
susceptible to erosion and the
bare soil is a place for weeds to
establish. Several riparian
functions are impaired.
Human land uses that can cause bare ground include
livestock grazing, cultivation, recreation, urban
development, roads/trails, timber harvest and
industrial activities. Significant bare ground caused by
human activity indicates a deterioration of riparian
Has the streambank or shoreline been altered by human activity?
Stable streambanks and shorelines maintain
channel configuration, integrity and bank shape.
When streambanks and shorelines are physically
altered, erosion can increase, moving channel and
bank materials, water quality can deteriorate, and
instability may increase within the reach and
Altering the shoreline or streambank vegetation can
also have an impact on health. Removal of woody
species or emergent plants (e.g. cattails) can
increase erosion and disrupt nutrient recycling.
Planting of non-native species or allowing invasion
of weeds and disturbance-caused plants can inhibit
native, deep-rooted ones.
This shoreline has been altered
through the clearing of trees.
Alteration can be subtle, like the
infilling of the floodplain and the
creation of a new, higher bank which
doesn’t allow the stream access to it’s
Bank alteration can result from livestock hoof shear,
livestock trails/watering sites, recreational trails,
flood/erosion control methods, irrigation
crossings/fords, bridges/culverts, landscaping and
Are riparian area soils compacted from use?
Plants filter and trap sediments to build a riparian soil layer of
moist, fine textured materials. Roots and underground fauna
create soil structure and spaces that allow water infiltration and
storage. This is the “sponge” that supports riparian vegetation.
This sponge is very susceptible to vehicle traffic, hoof action and
compaction. Compaction can be difficult to evaluate and the effect
is often related to soil type. Evaluating the amount of pugging,
hummocking and rutting provides some measure of soil
compaction from livestock and vehicle use in riparian areas.
Pugging describes large animal tracks left in soft soil. Pugged
areas have a honeycomb appearance and an irregular soil surface
difficult to walk across. Hummocking describes the raised mounds
of soil above the surrounding ground. Rutting describes deep
animal paths or vehicle tracks that indicate significant compaction
of riparian soils.
With extensive animal or vehicle compaction, the water-holding
capacity of the soil is reduced, normal plant succession is
disrupted and the soil surface is exposed and roughened, which
increases the possibility of erosion.
The soft soil of this wet meadow has been
compacted and reconfigured through hoof action
into pugs and hummocks.
Vehicle use when this
wetland was mainly dry
created ruts which compacted
soils, reducing the water
holding capacity.
Think of riparian areas as a sponge which collects, stores and slowly releases water.
Compaction of the soil that makes up the sponge inhibits this key function.
Can the stream or river access it’s floodplain?
Floodplains, the riparian area that lies beyond the
channel, provide a safety valve that allows water in
excess of what the channel can hold to escape into
a wider area. Floodplains provide temporary
storage for high water and an opportunity to slow
that water down, reducing energy and allowing
sediment to be deposited outside of the channel.
Incisement, or downcutting, and constructed
features like berms and dykes can limit the ability of
streams and rivers to access their floodplains during
high water events.
The inability to access a floodplain can result from:
! Watershed scale, cumulative effects of
vegetation removal, drainage and roading which
affect runoff;
! Local drainage scale changes including
vegetation removal, dams, water additions,
roading and culvert installations occurring
upstream of the reach (and sometimes
! Reach scale changes including vegetation
removal, beaver dam removal, channelization
and culverts;
! Natural events including landslides, beaver dam
wash-outs and extreme flood events; and,
! Flood and erosion control works.
Incisement of a stream channel and the inability of a
river to periodically access its floodplain can result
! A lowered water table that affects current
vegetation and the potential of the reach for
some types of vegetation;
! Increased stream energy with more erosion,
sediment, and unstable banks which can persist
downstream of the reach and potentially
upstream as the stream readjusts;
! Reduced water storage and retention, leading to
lower flows or flow ceasing during parts of the
! Decreased ability to trap sediment on the
floodplain and deal with water quality issues;
! Impairment in the ability of the reach to rebound
from natural and human caused impacts; and,
! Decreased productivity, forage, shelter and
biodiversity values.
During flooding
this river can
access a wide
floodplain to
store water and
reduce energy.
Flood water in this incised
channel has nowhere to go
and all the water and
energy are compressed in
the channel.
Is water removed and are flows/levels manipulated?
Riparian areas are built and maintained by water. Proper
functioning depends on a regular supply of water. The
degree to which water is removed or added directly affects
riparian health. Dewatering a riparian system, during the
critical growing season affects:
the maintenance and persistence of riparian plant
the stability of banks and shorelines;
fish and wildlife habitat; and,
forage production and the maintenance of shelter.
Significant changes to
water flows and levels
affects riparian vegetation
and riparian health
Riparian areas are adapted to, and depend on, the volume
and timing of annual peak flows and levels. The degree to
which upstream reaches and tributaries are controlled by
dams or diversions influences and affects delivery of water
to downstream areas. Water may arrive at times other than
when plants require it, or at levels higher than the system is
capable of handling.
To answer this question you need a watershed view
of the extent of upstream dams and diversions.
With greater control of flow, the more likely the
volume or delivery time of water will be affected,
often to the detriment of riparian function.
Riparian Characteristics Measured
There is an overlap in measurements between different sizes and types of riparian systems. This table provides a sense of what
characteristics are measured for each type and size of riparian system.
R i p a r i a n S ys t e m
Streams & small rivers
Vegetative cover of floodplain, shoreline or bank
Invasive plant species (weeds)
C h a ra c t e r i s t i c s
Disturbance related plant species
Preferred tree and shrub establishment and regeneration
Utilization of preferred trees and shrubs
Decadent and dead wood
Shoreline or bank root mass protection
Human caused bare ground
Compaction: Pugging, hummocking, rutting
Shoreline, bank and vegetation altered by human activity
Floodplain accessibility
Water manipulation - dewatering, control of flows/levels
Large rivers
Pipestone Creek and
the Owl River are
examples of systems
in the “Streams and Small Rivers” category
Lower Therien Lake and the
wetland complex next to it are
examples of the “Lakes and
Wetlands” category
The Red Deer River is in the
“Large River” category
Lakes, wetlands
What are the
behind the
K ey P i e c e s ?
Riparian health evaluation knits together physical
(soils and hydrology) and vegetation features,
because no one factor or characteristic provides a
complete picture of site health or trend in health.
These evaluations rely heavily on vegetation
characteristics because many vegetation features
integrate the effects of soil and hydrologic factors
which form and operate in riparian areas. Plants are
more visible than soil or hydrologic characteristics.
They may provide an early indication of riparian
health, help you see the past history of use and help
you to understand the successional trend on the site.
There is a close relationship between physical and
vegetation features.
Riparian reaches with
significant changes in hydrology and soil will show
changes in plant community structure and potential.
Changes in vegetation, the “glue” of riparian
systems, may have a rebounding effect on hydrology
and soils as well.
How Much
is There?
Many of the measurements deal with the element of “coverage”, that is, how
much of the riparian area measured is covered, influenced or affected by
vegetation or structural changes. The categories are usually expressed in
percentages of the reach area. For example, in the illustration below,
weeds cover about 3% of the riparian reach. Of the total canopy cover of
trees, 16% is composed of seedlings or saplings. These measurements
allow you to assign a score.
What’s there and is it the right stuff?
The types of plants on the riparian area
provide insight into health, so plant
identification is important. Plants provide
an indication of trend toward or away from
the potential of the site (what the site
could be). Coverage of native plants,
woody species, weeds and disturbancecaused species provide clues to trends
and to management influences.
Utilization rates of some plants (e.g.
woody species) that are key to riparian
function provide clues to the ability of
these plants to persist. The type of plants
present is also an indicator of their
effectiveness in performing several key
functions like binding banks and
shorelines together against the forces of
What is the right stuff? Willow and bunch grasses provide deep, binding root mass, while
Kentucky bluegrass and Canada thistle do not.
A Guide to the
Ve g e t a t i o n T y p e
R i p a r i a n S ys t e m
Other Grasses Introduced Disturbance
Shrubs Forbs Grass Species Weeds
R i pa r i a n St u f f
E=Excellent - these species have all the necessary
properties of deep, binding and large root mass
appropriate to riparian type or size.
G=Good - species meet most of the requirements for
holding bank and shore materials together.
F=Fair - plants have marginal ability to perform
stabilizing function.
P=Poor - vegetation unable to hold banks or shore
together under normal circumstances.
Trees - e.g. cottonwoods, aspen, conifers, birch.
Preferred Shrubs - e.g. willows, saskatoon,
dogwood, alder, silverberry, chokecherry.
Other Shrubs - e.g. rose, snowberry (buckbrush),
shrubby cinquefoil.
Native Grasses, Forbs - e.g. sedges, cattails,
tufted hairgrass, other bunch grasses and sod-forming
Introduced Grasses - e.g. Kentucky blue grass,
timothy, smooth brome.
Disturbance Species - e.g. common dandelion,
stinkweed, foxtail barley, plantains.
Weed Species - e.g. knapweeds, Canada thistle,
leafy spurge.
How much have we changed things?
Riparian health can often be linked directly to
current management or the effects of previous
management. The degree to which banks and
shorelines have been structurally altered or their
vegetation has been changed or modified is an
important measure. Because water is the driver
of riparian systems, determining the degree of
flow or level manipulation is important.
Shoreline or fenceline contrasts help us understand that changes have
happened to riparian areas. Both are measures of how much we
have changed the vegetation or structurally altered the bank or shore.
What ruler do we use for measurement?
Most of the characteristics rated in health evaluation are based on
measurements using your eyes and your judgment. The eye is a
remarkable measuring device. It may seem
imprecise, but with training and practice, the
methods are repeatable and reasonably
accurate. Extreme precision is not the
goal for health evaluation since it is not
an attempt to determine an absolute
value, but rather, a broad impression of
riparian condition.
How do the measurements link to health?
Riparian health reflects the ability of the site to perform eight basic ecological
functions. The characteristics we measure help us understand the potential of the
site to perform these functions and the degree to which the functions may be
In more detailed health evaluation, beyond the checklists, each characteristic
measured has a range of values that translate into the site’s potential to perform
several functions. The breaks between the values indicate significant differences,
or changes in potential. These were arrived at with expert review and opinion; the
breaks represent inflections or thresholds significant enough to indicate change.
The characteristics are weighted differently; this indicates that all of the
characteristics do not contribute equally to ecological function. This weighting
system reflects the relative importance of the characteristic, the influence or
relationship to other characteristics and the significance of a characteristic to an
ecological function or functions. Some characteristics, like the ability of a stream to
access it’s floodplain, are the foundation. Without them, most, or all other functions
could not occur.
This riparian area is “healthy, with
problems”. Can you identify the
missing pieces?
Vegetation cover
M e a s u re m e n t
Disturbance Species
Woody regeneration
Wood utilization
Dead wood
Deep roots
Bare ground
Site alteration
Floodplain accessible
Water manipulation
Bind Banks
Store Water
major role in performing this function
major impact on, or impairment of this function
minor effect or impact
How do I check the health of my riparian area?
You may have already observed several things on a riparian area with
which you are familiar. Some of these observations may concern you.
These could be signs that riparian health is declining
dead or dying
trees, shrubs
low forage
many weeds
or disturbance
downcutting of
the channel
bare soil
low summer
Getting an aerial perspective is a good
start to checking riparian health. It
provides insights on how much change
has occurred. The Alberta
Conservation Association has
developed a videography tool to help
lakeshore owners gain an aerial
perspective of riparian areas.
few wildlife
Fish are a good measure of
riparian health because they rely
on riparian areas for habitat, water
quality and maintaining
streamflows and lake levels. If fish
populations are in decline, riparian
health might be one of the issues to
frequent algae
species and
bare ground
Riparian Health Checklist
To find out if your concerns are valid, first determine what type of riparian area
you have. Are you on a river, a stream, a wetland or a lake? You could start with
a simple checklist. If you are concerned about a lake or wetland, use our
Lakeshore Riparian Health Checklist (Looking at My Lakeshore Fact Sheet); if it is a stream or river, use our Streambank Riparian
Health Checklist (Looking at My Streambank Fact Sheet). Checklists help you understand if some of the symptoms are present that
indicate declines in riparian health. Checklists don’t measure health, but give you a clue as to issues and concerns. A checklist will
help you determine if there are enough concerns to go to the next level of health evaluation.
Riparian Health Assessment
Riparian health assessment puts your initial observations into
a format that allows you to understand the significance of your
concerns and to measure the condition of the riparian area
against a standard. This is what your doctor does when you
have a checkup. Nine to sixteen measurements make up a
riparian health assessment. These measurements relate to
the ability of the riparian area to perform key ecological
functions that translate into health. Riparian health
assessment is a survey that landowners, resource managers
and others can use to quickly check the health status of an
area. Field workbooks and field forms are available for riparian
health assessments of streams and small rivers, lakes and
wetlands, and large rivers.
this one is for Streams and Small Rivers
some questions may not apply
possible scores are the maximum available
for each question
actual scores are those you measure
a description is provided of what is measured
and how to measure it on other pages
your observations will allow you to assign a
different questions are weighted differently
based on the relative contribution to health
add up the individual scores and compare to
the possible score
Riparian Health Inventory
Riparian health inventory is an in-depth measurement of riparian health.
Inventories are conducted by resource specialists with extensive training and
knowledge of riparian systems. Approximately 80 parameters are measured to provide a
comprehensive and detailed evaluation of riparian health. These detailed measurements are
used to determine watershed condition, aid in preparation of management plans and provide
a tool for monitoring. A summary of an inventory may be provided in the same format as the
field sheet of a riparian health assessment.
Riparian Health Training
information on how to do
these measurements? You
might consider taking in a riparian
awareness presentation. It will help you
understand riparian areas better and allow
you to use a checklist, to start you down the
road. That’s getting your feet wet! Wading
into it will require some training in riparian
health assessment. You will learn the
basics of evaluating the riparian health of a
stream, river, wetland or lake. With the
knowledge from a workshop and some
experience from field training you will be
able to apply riparian health assessment procedure on your own place.
Community groups, municipalities, counties and watershed groups will find
these workshops useful in understanding the procedures of riparian health
assessment and in interpreting the results of watershed level riparian health
inventories. Detailed riparian health inventories require significant levels of
training, plus a background in vegetation identification and other aspects of
riparian landscapes. Diving into that level is a serious commitment! The
Riparian Health Training Fact Sheet is a good place to start to determine the
level that is right for you.
In 1995 this reach of stream had some significant riparian
health issues, but management changes were underway,
including the establishment of this photo point.
Take a Picture!
One of the best things you can do to help see
the trend in riparian health is take a picture
and follow-up with photographs in
subsequent years. Combined with health
evaluations, it will
give you a visual
reminder of where
you began and
where you are now.
Make sure there is a
visible landmark in
the photograph, and
remember to take
the photograph from
the same place at
approximately the
same time of year.
By 2000, some recovery has occurred, in terms of fewer
weeds and regeneration of balsam poplars.
What do the riparian health scores tell me?
You’ve worked it out on your own, or you have the results in front of you. You can see the scores for each
measurement on the field sheet. At the bottom is a percentage based on your actual score and the total possible
score. What does it all mean?
Functions Performed
A health score of 80% or greater means
the reach has scored in the top category
called “healthy”. This tells you that all
riparian functions are being performed
and the reach exhibits a high level of
riparian condition. Healthy, functioning
riparian areas are resilient, stable and
provide a long list of benefits and values.
Trap sediment "
Build and maintain banks "
Store flood water and energy "
Recharge the aquifer "
Filter and buffer water "
Reduce and dissipate energy "
Maintain biodiversity "
Create primary productivity "
A health score from 60 to 79% puts the
reach in the “healthy, with problems”
category. Many riparian functions are
still being performed, but some signs of
stress are apparent. The reach may not
be as capable of rebounding from floods
and use, it may be vulnerable to erosion
and some of the potential of the riparian
area has been lost. This is like an amber
warning light indicating there could be
problems ahead and management
changes should be considered. At the
same time, with effective management
changes, a return to a healthier condition
is within your grasp.
Trap sediment ?
A health score of less than 60% means
the reach is in the “unhealthy” category.
Most riparian functions are severely
impaired or have been lost. The reach
has lost most of its resiliency, stability is
compromised and much of the potential
of the riparian area has been sacrificed.
At this point, red lights are flashing and
we need to stop and reflect on current
management. Immediate changes are
necessary to keep the reach from
declining further and to begin the
process of healing and restoration.
Trap sediment x
Build and maintain banks ?
Store flood water and energy "
Recharge the aquifer "
Filter and buffer water ?
Reduce and dissipate energy x
Maintain biodiversity ?
Create primary productivity "
Build and maintain banks x
Store flood water and energy x
Recharge the aquifer ?
Filter and buffer water x
Reduce and dissipate energy x
Maintain biodiversity x
Create primary productivity x
Is My Crick Sick?
Is My Lakeshore
Here are several riparian health examples to help you tune your eye.
Lake and Wetland Health Assessments
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
vegetation alteration
site alteration
bare ground
water manipulation
TOTAL: 50/57 =
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
vegetation alteration
site alteration
bare ground
water manipulation
TOTAL: 42/57 =
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
vegetation alteration
site alteration
bare ground
water manipulation
TOTAL: 28/57 =
Stream Health Assessments
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
dead wood
root mass / deep roots
bare ground
site alteration
floodplain accessible
TOTAL: 54/57 =
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
dead wood
root mass / deep roots
bare ground
site alteration
floodplain accessible
TOTAL: 36/57 =
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
dead wood
root mass / deep roots
bare ground
site alteration
floodplain accessible
TOTAL: 27/57 =
Stream Health Assessments
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
dead wood
root mass / deep roots
bare ground
site alteration
floodplain accessible
TOTAL: 47/57 =
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
dead wood
root mass / deep roots
bare ground
site alteration
floodplain accessible
TOTAL: 37/57 =
vegetation cover
invasive weeds
disturbance species
woody regeneration
wood utilization
dead wood
root mass / deep roots
bare ground
site alteration
floodplain accessible
TOTAL: 30/57 =
When you look at all of these lake and stream examples it’s good to
remember that health assessments were made by evaluating hundreds of
meters of shoreline and streambank, not just the portion shown in the
Ta k e t h e
Nex t S t e p
Link Measurement to
The step of measuring riparian health is
really just the end of the beginning. When
you look at the final score you might be
pleasantly surprised to find your riparian
areas are intact, mostly functioning, with
just a few “hot” spots. You might also be
surprised to find what you thought was
intact and healthy isn’t and you face some
real issues. The categories of health are
the first level of diagnosis. Take a reading
with the riparian thermometer.
For the next level of diagnosis, take a
closer look at the scores for the individual
Ac t i o n
If the reading is 80% or higher…
Your riparian area is performing well - Congratulations!
Ask yourself how you can maintain this condition.
Make a record of your present management practices and
share that information with others.
If the reading is between 60 and 80%...
There are signs of stress, but many riparian functions are
being performed - don’t jump off the bridge!
It is time to carefully watch and pay attention to
Changing practices now will be relatively painless compared
to later.
If the reading is below 60%...
This riparian area needs attention - the red lights are
flashing! Many riparian functions are impaired, or missing.
Think about how to stabilize these areas to prevent their
condition from worsening and management to improve them.
Vegetation canopy is reduced
(Q1) and weeds and disturbance
species (Q2&3) have increased in
abundance on the site.
Shrub species are regenerating
well (Q4) but utilization may be
too high to sustain them (Q5).
What are the immediate issues?
Utilization of shrubs is high
and may be impeding
regeneration and streambank
rootmass protection. That
may be resulting in the stream
beginning to downcut, which if
left untended may sever the
riparian area from it’s water
The amount of bare ground
Questions 7 & 8 show the early
stages of decline in deep-binding
root mass and an increase in
human-caused bare ground.
Livestock are exerting
physical impact at crossings
and watering points (Q10).
The stream is still able to
access it’s floodplain (Q11),
but early signs of downcutting
are apparent.
may indicate too much
pressure. That is giving
weeds and disturbance
advantage over native plants,
including trees and shrubs.
35/57 = 61% Healthy, with problems.
If the stress on this reach continues, there is a risk of losing several riparian functions.
The COMPLETE Riparian
This purpose of this guide is to describe the signs and
symptoms of riparian ailments. If riparian health is failing,
recognizing a condition, through observations or evaluations, is a
first step to treatment. Treatment options help you begin to
fight riparian ailments, but the emphasis should always be on
prevention and avoidance of poor riparian health rather than
The Riparian Doctor
A Key to Symptoms and Treatments
Sediment deposits on riparian area
Too much bare ground
Poor vegetation cover
Compacted soils
Excessive soil erosion or movement
! Many weeds and disturbance related plants
! Altered vegetation composition
! Low forage production
Symptom Of...
! Annual floods
! High levels of disturbance or use
! High traffic volume: animals, people,
! Landscaping or cultivation
Above symptoms plus:
! Too many disturbances, too early in
growing season, use too long, use too
! Few young trees and shrubs
! Mushroom-shaped willows
! Dead trees and shrubs
! Trees and shrubs missing
Above symptoms plus:
! Trampling and chronic, heavy browsing
! High beaver population
! Dewatering, diversions, damming
Treatment Options
! Natural event; do nothing
! Reduce use and traffic
! Rest the site; allow recovery
! Redistribute animal, human or vehicle use
! Change timing or season of use
! Reduce or remove hard surfaces
Above treatments plus:
! Spot treatment on invasive weeds
! Develop management plan for property
Above treatments plus:
! Temporary fencing to allow regeneration
! Limit livestock use in spring and fall
! Manage beaver population
! Examine water management for area
Above symptoms plus:
Unstable shorelines
Eroding streambanks
Widening of channel
Downcutting of channel
Above treatments plus:
! Loss or removal of plants with deep, binding Stabillization to allow natural recovery
! Reestablish natural meander and flow patterns
roots and emergent plants (e.g. cattails)
! Loss of large woody debris
! Monitor for recovery
! Excess energy in the system from watershed
changes and channelization
! Altered flow or water levels
Above symptoms plus:
Above treatments plus:
! Drought (natural)
! Diversion, drainage, flow control, modified
flood timing and magnitude
! Trap more runoff with greater plant cover
! Block drainage ditches and stop draining
! Examine water management in watershed
Above symptoms plus:
! Excess soil erosion, excess chemicals or
nutrients in or near riparian area
! Lack of plant cover
Above treatments plus:
! Reduce nutrient inputs in or near waterbody
! Keep plant cover, including cattails and
bulrushes for filtration and nutrient uptake
! Add buffer zones next to riparian area
! Poor water quality
! Increased suspended sediment
! More frequent and intense algae blooms
! Declines in fish and wildlife
Above symptoms plus:
Above treatments plus:
! Restore habitat by restoring vegetation
! Habitat changes
communities, through changes in use
! Cumulative impacts of all land uses in area
! Protect key habitat areas
If only it was that easy - to look up a riparian condition and find one solution.
Set Some Goals for Your Riparian Area
No matter what the score, or the category of health, taking the next step is about using riparian health
evaluations to help you set some goals. These goals might look like this:
Prevent potential problems by maintaining the
healthy reaches of stream or portions of shoreline;
that way, you don't have to treat the symptoms.
Reduce the pressure or stress that
is causing health to decline; don’t let
get worse.
Encourage, protect and
promote native vegetation to
enhance recovery, restoration
and maintenance of health.
Monitor your progress, be
patient with restoration and
recovery efforts, and repeat
what works.
Fix the broken pieces to restore structure and
function; do it while the problems are small,
and before they become larger.
Work with your neighbours to make sure your
efforts meld together, on a larger scale.
If we can recognize the stresses, reduce the
pressures, be patient and let the system rebound,
conditions will improve, assuming most key pieces
are still intact. If some of those key pieces (e.g.
woody vegetation) have gone missing, recovery will
be more difficult and take more time.
R ev i va l
The restoration of riparian area health is a series of pathways that
begin with some basic questions:
! What did the riparian area look like in the past (sometimes the
distant past)?
! What are the characteristics (physical and vegetative) now?
! What direction is the riparian area heading
under present management?
! What is the potential of the riparian area if
I make management changes?
heavy grazing
In most cases, riparian area health didn’t change
overnight. The unravelling of riparian areas and the
decline in health are changes that have been going on for
decades; largely unnoticed, unobserved, but cumulative in
effect. It's part of our history of development. The rate of
recovery will be based on where we start and where we
live. Water is the driver of riparian areas so recovery will
be slower in arid areas and faster in well-watered
ones. Changes in the watershed or drainage
area which affect amount and timing of runoff will
also be a factor in predicting recovery rates.
What is possible depends on the degree of
change on the riparian reach and how many
pieces are left to aid recovery. This diagram will
help you appreciate the riparian revival pathways
and also the chance of encountering a dead end.
clearing, cultivation
upstream impacts
management actions
loss of regeneration
of poplars/willows
pieces left
change in site potential
with downcutting
no pieces left
probable irreversible change in
vegetation / channel characteristics
For those reaches or shores
where it appears the
changes are irreversible, one
should not give up or
abandon these sites.
Stabilizing the reach or site
would be the appropriate
action. Ask for advice and
T h i n k i n g L i k e a Wa t e r s h e d
We can do many things on our own property to fix an ailing streambank or
piece of lakeshore. It’s important we do what we can as individuals but
maintaining or restoring a watershed has to be an integrated collection of
individual efforts. Our individual efforts can sometimes be less than effective,
especially in the face of the cumulative effects of all upstream activities.
Riparian health on your reach of the watershed is affected by what your
neighbours do, and what
activities occur, sometimes
far from your place in the
watershed. Watershed level
work seems overwhelming
because of the scale.
However, there are ways to
make watershed scale work
manageable. The first step is
to recognize that we can
manage cooperatively what
we can’t individually. That is
an old, powerful concept called “community”. All of us belong to some
community, usually at a municipal district or county level; it could be a small
watershed group on one short stream or on a small lake. At those levels,
every community boundary includes a larger portion of a watershed than that
of an individual property owner. Add two or three communities together
and most of a watershed will be found in those boundaries.
Mapping the watershed and getting to know your neighbours is
the beginning of making the task manageable. Now is the
time for some riparian awareness, helping people understand
what riparian areas are, how they function, their value and
the options for managing and caring for them.
All of us are part of a watershed and are
connected to one another.
health opened
my eyes to stuff I
hadn’t thought about,
like too many boat
docks and
Riparian health evaluation can help communities appreciate
the current condition of riparian areas in their care and create a
pathway for management changes. These evaluations link people
in a watershed together to work on a common goal of improving or
maintaining riparian health. Many communities have created a map using
riparian health, water quality or land use information. The map helps to
answer the question “where are we today?”. This step can be a way to
order all of the issues and create a priority for managing them. It is a
signal to others that your community wants to move forward to resolve
problems and restore health; it might be a way for you to get some help.
Alberta is divided into many watersheds.
At the big end of the scale there are nine
distinct drainages; one flows south to
the Gulf of Mexico, three flow east to
Hudson’s Bay and five flow north to the
Arctic Ocean. Each of these drainage
basins accumulate water from smaller
ones. A watershed is the collecting
basin for water received as rain or
snowmelt. It can be the sum of many
streams, channels, drainages, wetlands,
ponds and lakes. Sometimes the
pathway that water takes is on the
surface, in the form of rivers, streams
and lakes. The pathway can also be
subsurface movement of water. That
can be harder to track but still connects
pieces together to form a watershed.
“This assessment
helped me see what
riparian health is
now, gave me a feel
“I like the
for problems and
idea of looking at
got me thinking
the bigger picture. I
about what I
can’t do it all on my
could do”
own place”
Working Together for Watersheds
When a community has the information from a riparian health inventory
it is a small step to setting some goals and developing management
plans useful for individual landowners and the broader watershed. A
riparian health evaluation sets a benchmark so the effect of
management choices can be considered. A single health evaluation
provides a rating for one point in time. Like a health check-up for us,
once may not be enough. To monitor trends, measure effects of
management and to account for natural variation, it is useful to repeat
health evaluations at periodic intervals, such
as every five years. It’s a way of knowing,
and showing, you’re on the right track.
When a community works together,
all of your individual efforts pay big
dividends on a watershed scale.
Healthy, functioning
riparian areas in an intact
watershed would be
something worthwhile to
leave your children.
Where to
Ad d i t i o n a l
Information &
Cows & Fish Publications
The following are available from the Cows and Fish program:
Awareness Documents
Fact Sheets:
Caring for the Green Zone:
Riparian Areas and Grazing
! Riparian Health Assessment and Inventory
! Riparian Health Training
! Invasive and Disturbance-caused Plants in Riparian Areas
! Invasive Weed and Disturbance-caused
Undesirable Plant List
! Looking at my Lakeshore
Riparian Health Checklist
! Looking at my Streambank
Riparian Health Checklist
! Value of Wetlands
! Biodiversity and Riparian
Areas-Life in the Green Zone
! Lakes and Wetlands
! Water Quality and Riparian Areas
! Economics of Riparian Areas
! Riparian Demonstration Sites - A
guide to selection and
! Riparian Profile and Reference
! Crops, Creeks and Sloughs
! Tools for Riparian
! The Cows and Fish Process
! Facing the Issues
! Getting Past the Talk-Working with Communities
! Cows and Fish Brochure
Community Stories:
! Upper Little Bow Basin Water
Users Association
! Municipal District of Ranchland
! Lower Mosquito Creek Water
Users Association
! City of Camrose - A Forward
and Upstream View
Literature Review: Riparian
health and water quality.
Function, design, and
management of riparian buffers.
2001. Sandy Holmes. Cows and
Fish Report No. 011.
Riparian Health & Classification Tools
Riparian Health Assessment for Streams and Small
Rivers - Field Workbook.
Riparian Health Assessment for
Lakes and Wetlands - Field
Classification and management
of riparian and wetland sites in
Alberta. W. H. Thompson and P.
L. Hansen.
Manuals & Forms
! Alberta Lotic Wetland Health
Assessment for Streams and
Small Rivers (Survey) User Manual and Form
! Alberta Lentic Wetland Assessment User Manual and Form
! Alberta Lotic Health Assessment for Large River Systems
(Survey) User Manual and Form
Cows and Fish Resources
Cows and Fish provides presentations, workshops, training,
extension material, riparian pasture walks and riparian health
evaluations. We can also share management techniques, plus
help create a pathway for your community to work on riparian
management issues.
Where to
Ad d i t i o n a l
Information &
Other Resources and Materials
Plant Identification
General Information
Guide to Restricted and Noxious Weeds in Southern
Alberta. Contact your local southern Alberta Agricultural
Fieldman for this pocket guide.
Weed Identification in Alberta. S. Bayley, D. Bigelow and
B. Vanden Born. Alberta Environmental Protecton, Ducks
Unlimited Canada, Telus and Agriculture Industry. 30 pages.
Weeds of Canada and the Northern United States. R.
Dickinson and F. Royer. 1999. The University of Alberta
Press and Lone Pine Publishing. Edmonton, Alberta. 434
An Identification Guide to Alberta Aquatic Plants. G.
Robert Burland. 1989. Alberta Environment, Pesticide
Management Branch. 78 pages.
Northern Range Plants. C. Stone and D. Lawrence. 2000.
Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. 200
Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland.
D. Johnson, L. Kershaw, A. MacKinnon and J. Pojar. 1995.
Lone Pine Publishing. Edmonton, Alberta. 392 pages.
A Habitat Field Guide: Trees and Shrubs of Alberta. K.
Wilkinson. 1990. Lone Pine Publishing. Edmonton, Alberta.
191 pages.
The Stockman’s Guide to Range Livestock Watering from
Surface Water Sources. Prairie Agricultural Machinery
Institute. Box 1060, 390 River Road, Portage la Prairie,
Manitoba, R1N 3C5. Alberta Farm Machinery Research
Centre, c/o Lethbridge Community College, Lethbridge, Alberta,
T1K 1L6. Call toll-free in Canada: 1-800-567-7264.
Conservation and Logging on Private Land in Alberta.
Byron Grundberg and D.S. Vanderwel. 1994. AAFRD. Agdex
581-2. 26 pages.
Cattle Wintering Sites. Brian West. From Alberta Beef
Producers, PFRA, or AAFRD.
The Dock Primer - A Cottager’s Guide to WaterfrontFriendly Docks. Max Burns. Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
23 pages.
The Shore Primer - A Cottager’s Guide to a Healthy
Waterfront. Ray Ford. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 23
Caring for Shoreline Properties. Pat Valastin. 1999. Alberta
Conservation Association. 29 pages.
On the Living Edge: Your Guide for Waterfront Living.
Sarah Kipp and Clive Callaway. 2002. Living by Water (780427-8124
Range/Pasture Health Assessment Short Form. 2000.
Working draft prepared by the Alberta Rangeland Health
Assessment Task Group, Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural
Development and Alberta Environment. 17 pages. See Public
Lands Division, SRD, Cows and Fish Partners.
Watershed Information
Watershed Restoration: Principles and Practices. J. E.
Williams, C. A. Wood and M. P. Dombeck (eds.). 1997.
American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland. 561 pages.
Stream Corridor Restoration: Principles, Processes and
Practices. Federal Interagency Stream Restoration Working
Group. 1998. Go to and do
advanced search (use title). 618 pages.
Community Watershed Toolkit for the North
Saskatchewan River Watershed. From North
Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance. 6th Flr, 9803-102A
Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta T5J 3A3. 780-496-3474.
From AAFRD: [see AAFRD in Cows and Fish Partners]
Building Community Partnerships. 2001. 23 pages.
Getting to Know Your Local Watershed. Fiona Briody and
Karen Yakimishyn. 2002. Agdex # 576-8. 22 pages.
Other Contacts for Information
! Agricultural Service Boards and Conservation Technicians of
your local municipality or county
! Alberta Environmental Farm Plans 1-866-844-2337
! Alberta Fish and Game Association, Operation Grassland
! Alberta Lake Management Society 780-492-1294
! Alberta Watersheds website
! Cows and Fish Partners (see page 46)
! Ducks Unlimited Canada, Edmonton office 780-489-2002
! Vincent Lake Working Group
The Cows and Fish program gratefully acknowledges the
financial support provided to the development of “Riparian
Areas: A User’s Guide to Health” by the following agencies
and initiatives:
Alberta Environment
Source photography- L. Fitch
Photographic composite created by E. Saunders
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development
Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (PFRA)
Canadian Adaptation and Rural Development Fund
Technical Support:
The following people are field practitioners of riparian
health evaluation and contributed their ideas and
experience to this document: Greg Hale, Michael Gerrand,
Michael Uchikura, Kerri O’Shaughnessy, Kelsey SpicerRawe, Nicole Bach, Suzanne Witham, Sasha Duquette,
Jamie Iwaasa, Barry Adams, Darlene Moisey and Gerry
Dr. Paul Hansen,
William Thompson
and Bob Ehrhart,
through their research,
teaching, publications
and leadership,
provided inspiration
and support for the
development of riparian
health evaluation tools
for Alberta.
Pages i - 10 - L. Fitch
Page 12 - Glenbow Archives, L. Fitch
Page 13 - Barry Adams, L. Fitch
Page 14 - Glenbow Archives
Pages 15, 16 - L. Fitch
Page 17 - Jaime Iwaasa, L. Fitch
Page 18 - Michael Gerrand, L. Fitch
Pages 19-21 - L. Fitch
Page 22 - C. Bradley, L. Fitch
Pages 23-25 - L. Fitch
Page 27 - Michael Gerrand, L.Fitch
Page 28 - L. Fitch
Page 29 - Blake Mills, L. Fitch
Pages 31, 32 - L. Fitch
Page 33 - Sasha Duquette, Michael Uchikura
Page34 - Kelsey Spicer-Rawe, Jaime Iwaasa, Michael Gerrand
Page 35 - Nicole Bach, Sasha Duquette
Page 38 - L. Fitch
Page 39 - Glenbow Archives, L. Fitch
Pages 40-42 - L. Fitch
Pages 45, 47 - L. Fitch
All illustrations and photographic composites created by
Elizabeth Saunders, Sandpiper Ecological Research and
Illustration, Monarch, Alberta
Page 36 - Field sheet concept by Barry Adams
Design and Layout:
Elizabeth Saunders, Sandpiper Ecological Research and
Illustration, Monarch, Alberta
Printing, Graphcom Printers Ltd., Lethbridge, Alberta.
1st Printing January 2003
Cows and Fish Partners
Alberta Beef Producers
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (ASRD)
216, 6715 - 8 St. N.E.
Calgary, Alberta
Canada T2E 7H7
Public Lands Division
Agriculture Centre
#100, 5401 - 1st Avenue South
Lethbridge, Alberta
Canada T1J 4V6
Trout Unlimited Canada
P.O. Box 6270, Stn. D
Calgary, Alberta
Canada T2P 2C8
Fish and Wildlife Division
2nd Floor, YPM Place, 530 - 8th Street South
Lethbridge, Alberta
Canada T1J 2J8
Canadian Cattlemen’s Association
215, 6715 - 8 St. N.E.
Calgary, Alberta
Canada T2E 7H7
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
7646 8th Street NE
Calgary, Alberta
Canada T2E 8X4
Alberta Environment
9820- 106 St., Main Floor
Edmonton , Alberta
T5K 2J6
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration PFRA
Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development
206, JG O’Donoghue Bldg.
7000 - 113 Street
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada T6H 5T6
600, 138 - 4 Avenue S.E.
Calgary, Alberta
Canada T2G 4Z6
Alberta Conservation Association
P.O. Box 40027 Baker Centre Postal Outlet
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada T5K 2M4
Producers and Community Groups
Cows and Fish
Program Manager 403-381-5538
North/Central Alberta Coordinator 780-679-1289
Southern Alberta Coordinator 403-381-5377
[email protected]
c/o Fish and Wildlife Division
2nd Floor, YPM Place
530 - 8 Street South
Lethbridge, Alberta
Canada, T1J 2J8
Working with
producers and
communities on
Healthy riparian areas sustain us. We
invite you to work with Cows and Fish
to conserve, restore and maintain these
vital green zones.
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