What are the conditions of riparian ecosystems? Identifying impaired floodplain ecosystems across the western U.S. using the riparian condition assessment (RCA) tool.
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 κ=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.