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Riparian Ecosystem Creation and Restoration:
A Literature Summary


Riparian ecosystems generally compose a minor proportion of surrounding areas, but typically are more structurally diverse and more productive in plant and animal biomass than adjacent upland areas. Riparian areas supply food, cover, and water (especially important in the arid West) for a large diversity of animals, and serve as migration routes and forest connectors between habitats for a variety of wildlife, particularly ungulates and birds.

Because riparian ecosystems often are relatively small areas and occur in conjunction with waterways, they are vulnerable to severe alteration. Riparian ecosystems throughout the U.S. have been heavily impacted by man's activities. Riparian ecosystem creation and restoration have been used as mitigation for project impacts from highway, bridge, and pipeline construction; water development; flood control channel modifications; industrial and residential development; agriculture; irrigation; livestock grazing; mining; and accidental habitat loss.

Creation of a riparian ecosystem in a more mesic upland area (e.g., grassland or cropland) adjacent to a river requires appropriate water supply and grading the topography to suitable elevations to support plantings of riparian vegetation. Restoration involves returning the ecosystem to predisturbance conditions and typically implies revegetation. Removing exotic vegetation or restoring water supplies to predisturbance level also may be involved. Enhancement of riparian ecosystems commonly refers to improving existing conditions to increase habitat value, usually by increasing plant or community diversity to increase value for wildlife. Managing a riparian ecosystem typically involves enhancement techniques. However, creation and restoration projects often involve use of techniques considered more management-oriented (e.g., fencing to prevent cattle grazing until planted vegetation of a created or restored wetland is established).

Protection of an existing riparian ecosystem from impact should be of utmost importance during planning and construction phases of development projects. If loss or damage is unavoidable, wetland creation or restoration can be used as mitigation. Compared to other wetland types (e.g., coastal wetlands), projects and techniques involving creation or restoration of riparian ecosystems are not well documented. For example, only 8% of the records in the WCR Data Base contained information on riparian ecosystems, whereas 31% of the records contained information on coastal emergent or forested ecosystems. To provide a source of currently available literature, riparian information from 92 records (primarily published papers or reports) in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Wetland Creation/Restoration (WCR) Data Base (Schneller-McDonald et al. 1988) was used to develop a literature summary of creation and restoration of riparian ecosystems.

The summary provides an overview of the status of riparian ecosystems in the U.S., a discussion of several riparian functions, and a review of some techniques used for planning, implementing, monitoring, and measuring project success of creation/restoration efforts. Case studies of various creation or restoration projects are used to demonstrate these techniques and to report some results of their use. Several well-documented case studies are discussed in detail to illustrate more extensive efforts to plan, implement, or monitor riparian ecosystem creation/restoration projects.

For the purpose of this report, riparian ecosystems are defined as landscapes adjacent to drainage ways of floodplains that exhibit vegetation, soil, and hydrologic mosaics along topographic and moisture gradients that are distinct from the predominant landscape surface types. Major plant communities are described under palustrine system in Cowardin et al. (1979).

Literature from the WCR Data Base was used to provide a summary of riparian ecosystem creation/restoration literature. Thus, information concerning natural systems is not included unless discussed in these articles. This focus allows the reader to compare relative information available on riparian ecosystem creation/restoration efforts. However, this focus also results in limited information in some sections of the report (e.g., Status of Riparian Ecosystems in the U.S.).

Individuals involved in riparian ecosystem creation/restoration efforts are encouraged to thoroughly examine available literature on natural and altered systems. Brinson et al. (1981) provide a comprehensive review and synthesis of the ecology and status of riparian ecosystems. Over 500 articles are cited in their 124-page report. Chapters include the following topics: status of riparian ecosystems in the U.S., ecological functions and properties of riparian ecosystems (e.g., geomorphology, primary productivity, nutrient cycling, hydrology), importance of riparian ecosystems to fish and wildlife, and considerations in valuation (ecologic and economic) of riparian ecosystems. Brinson et al. (1981) also discuss management of riparian ecosystems. Riparian ecosystem management literature was not included in the WCR Data Base, unless the article also discussed creation or restoration.

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