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Riparian Health Assessment

What is Riparian Health?

Like people, riparian areas need to be healthy to function properly. Some of those functions include trapping sediments, recharging ground water, providing primary productivity, and supporting biodiversity (see Ecology & Function for more about riparian areas and their functions). Cows and Fish is helping cattle producers, landowners, and their communities understand how healthy their riparian areas are, both on their individual operations and in their local watersheds. Understanding riparian health, or function, allows entire communities and individual producers to identify concerns and to proactively address specific land use issues. This willingness to face the issues fosters cooperation rather than conflict, and can help temper legislation and regulation.

What is a Riparian Health Assessment?

Riparian health assessment relies on visual observation, a little practice and fine-tuning your 'eye' to accurately interpret the health or function of a riparian area. Riparian health assessment helps you address the questions "Where am I?", "Where do I want to go?", and "Did I make it?" in terms of riparian health. Both vegetative and physical parameters are examined to provide information about the function and condition of that riparian area. Riparian health assessment and inventory also:

CREATES AWARENESS among producers, other landowners and their communities about riparian management issues in their local watersheds;

HELPS LANDOWNERS AND COMMUNITIES TAKE VOLUNTARY ACTION by assisting local decision-makers develop strategies to find solutions to address local riparian issues;

SHOWS THAT THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR IS WILLING TO FACE THE ISSUES by first acknowledging the need to take stock or determine the current "state of the environment" of their watershed and individual operation;

IDENTIFIES THE "GOOD NEWS" STORIES of producers and other landowners already managing healthy riparian areas;

TEMPERS THE NEED FOR LEGISLATION AND REGULATION as proactive efforts by landowners and communities value cooperation over conflict by demonstrating their willingness to face riparian issues;

HELPS COMMUNITIES AND INDIVIDUALS MONITOR THEIR PROGRESS in improving, maintaining and protecting riparian health in their watershed or operation;

ASSISTS CATTLE PRODUCERS TO IDENTIFY ENVIRONMENTAL RISK AND INTEGRATE THAT INFORMATION INTO FARM AND RANCH PLANNING, taking stock of current conditions and identifying management options for improvement if required.

What is the difference between Riparian Health Assessment and Riparian Health Inventory?

Riparian Health Assessments

A short list of questions to quickly help landowners and land managers determine the relative health of their riparian areas. It provides a rapid survey of the area and a quick calculation of relative health. A very useful tool for resource managers to use as a training aid and extension tool.

Riparian Health Inventory

A detailed inventory that thoroughly examines vegetation, soil parameters, and hydrology of the area. Riparian health inventory is used by riparian resource management professionals to capture benchmark data, examine details of the plant community and structure, and for monitoring purposes. It is a very important tool for examining the health of watersheds, collecting baseline information, and for evaluating the impact of management changes over time. The riparian health score is calculated by computer based on the details of the inventory. Please contact us if you would like more information about using this method in your area. (Note: the inventory does not include an examination of water quality).

Collecting Riparian Health Data?

We strongly encourage those individuals who wish to use the riparian health assessment tool for scientific and benchmark purposes to contact us regarding training. This method is relatively simple, but it is important to gain consistent, appropriate techniques, particularly if the information is to be considered accurate and suitable for long-term comparisons.

Download our Riparian Health Assessment Forms and User Manuals

Forms & User Manuals New as of June 2018
Streams & Small Rivers Large Rivers Lakes, Wetlands & Sloughs
Form Form Form
User Manual User Manual User Manual

Or you can view a copy of our Riparian Health Assessment for Streams and Small Rivers or Lakes and Wetlands Field Workbook.

We offer workshops and training sessions in using the Riparian Health Assessments for streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. If you are interested in learning more about how to determine riparian health, please contact us.


Download our Riparian Health Inventory Forms and User Manuals

NOTE: Because appropriate use of these forms requires extensive technical knowledge and training, they are not available to the general public. If you feel you have the appropriate technical skills (plant identification, riparian and hydrogeological knowledge, extensive ocular estimating skills) and you wish to use the forms, please contact us to confirm your technical abilities and we will provide you with access to download the forms listed below.

Use of these forms requires extensive ecological knowledge, specifically of plant communities and identification, hydrology, and related topics. Also, ensuring a reasonable level of consistency and appropriate use of these tools requires training and ongoing practice of the techniques with qualified practioners.

By downloading and using these forms and manuals, you assume all responsibility at law and you agree not to make any claims against Cows and Fish, and agree to indemnify Cows and Fish.

Forms & User Manuals New as of June 2018
Streams & Small Rivers Lakes, Wetlands & Sloughs
Form Form
User Manual User Manual

Note: these forms are not designed to give you a riparian health score - they require an appropriate computer database to do so.

How Do We Deliver Riparian Health Assessments?


The purpose of riparian health assessment and inventory is to provide better information on riparian health or function to assist landowners and land managers make the best decisions to manage their riparian resources effectively. Combined with practical knowledge and wisdom about their own ranch, farm, land or watershed, riparian health information will help landowners and managers find better land management solutions.

Riparian health assessment and inventory are delivered:

AS PART OF A COMMUNITY-BASED PROCESS OR INITIATIVE, usually on a local watershed, involving awareness and education, team building, tool and information building, and monitoring (see Cows and Fish Process for more information).

AFTER AN INVITATION FROM A COMMUNITY OR PRODUCER GROUP, we meet with local Agricultural Service Board representatives, agricultural fieldmen, producer or community group leaders, and other local individuals to discuss potential riparian management tools the group can implement as part of their local voluntary plan to address land use issues in their local watershed.

WHEN THE PRODUCER OR COMMUNITY GROUP DECIDES TO IMPLEMENT RIPARIAN HEALTH ASSESSMENT, they determine which stream systems or watersheds to target as part of their community-based initiative. Then, at their invitation, we provide information on riparian areas and health at a local meeting, and ask the community to decide if they would like to proceed with riparian health assessment and inventory. If they want to proceed, they secure funding locally or through provincial and federal grants to help cover part of the cost of the riparian health inventories.

WE COMPLETE ON-SITE VISITS WITH LANDOWNERS WHO WISH TO PARTICIPATE AND EXAMINE REPRESENTATIVE RIPARIAN AREAS ON THEIR LAND. Later in the year, individual landowners receive a confidential report that summarises what we found in terms of riparian health, with potential management strategies they may want to consider. The group or community typically receives a summary report, presented at a follow-up meeting, that portrays the health of the whole watershed and outlines possible next steps and suggested management strategies.

  RIPARIAN HEALTH ASSESSMENT / INVENTORY IS ONLY ONE TOOL IN THE RIPARIAN MANAGEMENT "TOOL BOX". Because of the potential danger in riparian health assessment data being used to point fingers at improper management practices (those with degraded riparian health), Cows and Fish only proceeds with this tool after initial community meetings and decisions are made by the producers and community members to go ahead.

WE ALSO HOST FIELD DAYS FOR LOCAL PARTICIPANTS to learn more about riparian health assessment hands-on, provide riparian and grazing management information, and examine sites for demonstration or profile potential, depending on requests from the group or community. We encourage communities to monitor their progress and success at meeting their goals for healthy, sustainable operations and watersheds.

A SPECIAL THANKS goes to Paul Hansen, Bill Thompson, Tom Keith (Ecological Solutions Group LLC) and Bob Ehrhart (formerly with Riparian Wetland Research Program (RWRP), University of Montana), Montana USA, for all their support.

Without the efforts and generosity provided to our program from Paul Hansen, Bill Thompson, Tom Keith and Bob Ehrhart, we would not have been able to achieve the success we have had in implementing riparian health inventory and assessment and riparian plant community classification work in Alberta.

Their commitment and expertise has allowed our program to adopt, adapt and produce products that are assisting landowners and land managers improve their understanding of riparian ecosystems and make better decisions for their conservation and management throughout Alberta.

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© Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society