Riparian Health - Evaluating the Health of Riparian Areas - An Overview

August 16, 2011 Print Friendly and PDF

The Characteristics of Healthy Streams

An example of a healthy riparian area.

To assess the condition of a riparian area, it is necessary to use a defined concept. A riparian area is considered healthy, or properly functioning, when it contains adequate vegetation, proper land form, or large woody debris which will:

  • Dissipate stream energy associated with high waterflow, thereby reducing erosion and improving water quality
  • Filter sediment, capture bedload, and aid floodplain development
  • Improve flood-water retention and ground-water recharge
  • Develop root masses that stabilize stream banks against cutting action
  • Develop diverse ponding and channel characteristics to provide the habitat and the water depth, duration, and temperature necessary for fish production, waterfowl breeding, and other uses, and
  • Support greater biodiversity.

Not All Riparian Areas Are Equal

It is important to remember that not all riparian areas are created equal. As stated above, “adequate vegetation, land form, or large woody debris” or any combination of these may be required to keep a riparian area functioning and healthy. For example, in most western Oregon riparian areas, large woody debris, or fallen trees, must be present to dissipate energy, capture bedload, and aid floodplain development. However, many areas in the Great Basin do not have the potential or require large woody debris to dissipate stream energy. Where they do, the wood is generally smaller; instead this is accomplished through the presence of vegetation such as willows, sedges, and rushes.

The Right Components Bring about the Right Characteristics

When the components necessary are present to dissipate energy associated with high flows, a number of physical characteristics or changes are evident. These include:

  • Reduced erosion
  • Sediment filtering or deposition
  • Improved floodwater retention

As these physical attributes of the system begin to function, they start the process of developing ponding and channel characteristics that provide habitat for fish, waterfowl, and other uses. It is important to note that the physical attributes have to be in working order to sustain the channel characteristics that provide the habitat for these resource values.

When these physical aspects are not present, changes have to be made that allow them to recover. A change such as acquiring vegetation leads to other physical changes, which allows the systems to begin to function. Recovery starts with acquiring the right elements to dissipate energy, which begins to put the physical processes into working order and they provide the foundation to sustain desired condition.

Water and soil conditions provide the basic structure of a riparian area, and as long as this basic structure has not been seriously altered, the maintenance and even improvement of a riparian area are often relatively easy. Without them, plants lose their resilience and systems fall apart. Then, little stresses can keep them from recovery.

Attributes That Are Warning Signs

Some specific attributes may indicate that a riparian area is “unhealthy” or “unraveling.” The primary physical features to consider in determining this are:

  • Evidence of channel downcutting
  • Evidence of channel widening
  • Amount, location, and causes of bare ground and
  • Amount of fine materials on the bottom of the channel,

Vegetation Is the Easiest Attribute to See

Vegetation plays a critical part in the health of a riparian area. It is also important for management because plant communities often provide the first indicators of changes to the system. Important factors to consider when looking at riparian vegetation include:

  • The types and amounts of plants present,
  • How well they are fulfilling riparian functions,
  • The amount of foraging and browsing pressure being exerted on certain plants, and
  • The mix of age classes of woody species, if present.

If these attributes, or lack of them, are issues in a riparian area, it could indicate that the riparian area is in need of management changes to bring it back into a healthy and functioning condition.

Where to Go for Help

For more information, or help in determining the health of a stream, contact:

  • Your local Cooperative Extension agent
  • Land management agencies that administer the land, such as the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel for riparian areas on private property.

Related Pages

Riparian Health - Understanding the Function of Floodplains

Riparian Health - Understanding the Role of Beavers in Riparian Areas

Riparian Health - Understanding if the Channel is in Balance with the Landscape

Riparian Health - Riparian Areas and Water Storage

Riparian Health - Understanding How Uplands Contribute to Riparian Health

Riparian Health - Understanding Riparian Vegetation Age-Class and its Role in Health

Riparian Health - Understanding Species Diversity

Riparian Health - Understanding the Relationship between Vegetation and Soil Moisture Characteristics

Riparian Health - Understanding Root Masses and Bank Stability

Riparian Health - Understanding Plant Vigor

Riparian Health - Understanding if you have Adequate Vegetation

Riparian Health - Understanding the Role of Large Woody Material in Riparian Areas

Riparian Health - Understanding a Channels Ability to Dissipate Energy

Riparian Health - Point Bars

Riparian Health - Understanding Lateral Stability in Riparian Areas

Riparian Health - Understanding Vertical Stability in Riparian Areas

Riparian Health - Understanding if the Channel is in Balance with the Soil and Water Being Supplied


Surber, G., B. Ehrhart. 1998. Stream and Riparian Areas Management: A Home Study Course for Managers. Montana State Extension Service. Information also available at

USDI Bureau of Land Management. 1998. Riparian Area Management: A User Guide to Assessing Proper Functioning Condition and the Supporting Science for Lotic Areas. Technical Reference TR 1737-15. 124 pp. More Information available at:

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.