Environmental Management

, Volume 62, Issue 3, pp 548–570 | Cite as

What are the Conditions of Riparian Ecosystems? Identifying Impaired Floodplain Ecosystems across the Western U.S. Using the Riparian Condition Assessment (RCA) Tool

  • William W. MacfarlaneEmail author
  • Jordan T. Gilbert
  • Joshua D. Gilbert
  • William C. Saunders
  • Nate Hough-Snee
  • Chalese Hafen
  • Joseph M. Wheaton
  • Stephen N. Bennett


Environmental stressors associated with human land and water-use activities have degraded many riparian ecosystems across the western United States. These stressors include (i) the widespread expansion of invasive plant species that displace native vegetation and exacerbate streamflow and sediment regime alteration; (ii) agricultural and urban development in valley bottoms that decouple streams and rivers from their floodplains and reduce instream wood recruitment and retention; and (iii) flow modification that reduces water quantity and quality, degrading aquatic habitats. Here we apply a novel drainage network model to assess the impacts of multiple stressors on reach-scale riparian condition across two large U.S. regions. In this application, we performed a riparian condition assessment evaluating three dominant stressors: (1) riparian vegetation departure from historical condition; (2) land-use intensity within valley bottoms; and (3) floodplain fragmentation caused by infrastructure within valley bottoms, combining these stressors in a fuzzy inference system. We used freely available, geospatial data to estimate reach-scale (500 m) riparian condition for 52,800 km of perennial streams and rivers, 25,600 km in Utah, and 27,200 km in 12 watersheds of the interior Columbia River Basin (CRB). Model outputs showed that riparian condition has been at least moderately impaired across ≈70% of the streams and rivers in Utah and ≈49% in the CRB. We found 84% agreement (Cohen’s ĸ = 0.79) between modeled reaches and field plots, indicating that modeled riparian condition reasonably approximates on-the-ground conditions. Our approach to assessing riparian condition can be used to prioritize watershed-scale floodplain conservation and restoration by providing network-scale data on the extent and severity of riparian degradation. The approach that we applied here is flexible and can be expanded to run with additional riparian stressor data and/or finer resolution input data.


Conservation planning Riparian restoration Watershed condition assessment Riparian degradation Floodplain ecology Columbia River Basin Utah 



This work was supported by U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (USU Award No. 151010), Utah Department of Natural Resources’ Endangered Species Mitigation Fund (USU Award No. 140600), Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ Pittman and Robertson Fund (USU Award No. 150736), Snake River Salmon Recovery Board through Eco Logical Research (USU Award No. 200239) and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA project numbers: CHaMP 2011-006 and ISEMP 2013-017), as part of the Columbia Habitat Monitoring Program ( through a sub-award from Eco Logical Research (USU Award No. 150737). We are grateful to Justin Jimenez (BLM) who had the vision to undertake a riparian assessment across the Colorado Plateau, and built the partnerships for successful implementation. Model development benefitted greatly from insights and conversations with Jeremy Jarnecke (BLM), Russell Norvell (UDWR), Jimi Gragg (UDWR), Chris Keleher (UDNR), Frank Howe (USU), Justin Shannon (UDWR), Gary O’Brien (USU), Phaedra Budy (USGS/USU), Konrad Hafen (USU), Nick Bouwes (USU), Chris Jordan (NOAA), and the Weber River Watershed Partnership (UT). Adan Banda, Micael Albonico, Shane Hill, Martha Jensen, Matt Meier, and Chris Smith provided GIS support. Reid Camp, Andrew Hill, and Scott Shahverdian provided field-validation support. We thank two anonymous reviewers and Angus Webb for their review comments that significantly improved this paper.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

267_2018_1061_MOESM1_ESM.docx (7 mb)
Supplementary Information


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • William W. Macfarlane
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jordan T. Gilbert
    • 1
  • Joshua D. Gilbert
    • 1
  • William C. Saunders
    • 1
    • 2
  • Nate Hough-Snee
    • 3
  • Chalese Hafen
    • 1
  • Joseph M. Wheaton
    • 1
    • 4
  • Stephen N. Bennett
    • 1
    • 2
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Watershed SciencesUtah State UniversityLoganUSA
  2. 2.Eco Logical Research, Inc.ProvidenceUSA
  3. 3.Meadow Run Environmental, LLCLeavenworthUSA
  4. 4.Anabranch Solutions, LLCNewtonUSA

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