Stream Corridor Restoration - Principles, Processes, Practices

Stream Corridor Restoration - Principles, Processes, PracticesThis Award winning manual was produced by 15 Federal government agencies

This document is a result of an unprecedented cooperative effort among fifteen Federal agencies and partners to (produce a common reference on stream corridor restoration. It responds to a growing national and international public interest in restoring stream corridors. This document encapsulates the rapidly expanding body of knowledge related to stream corridors and their restoration. Such restoration affects water quality, recreation, fish and wildlife, and agriculture.

The document encourages locally led, public involvement in restoration planning and implementation.



NTIS Order Number: PB98-158348INQ (ISBN-0-934213-59-3)

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This document was published in a loose leaf binder to allow insertion of:

  • Updated material which will be made available at specific Web sites

  • Addition of regional or locally relevant materials collected by the reader.



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Why is Stream Corridor Restoration Important?

The United States has more than 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams that, along with closely associated floodplain and upland areas, comprise corridors of great economic, social, cultural, and environmental value. These corridors are complex ecosystems which include the land, plants, animals, and network of streams within them. They perform a number of ecological functions such as modulating streamflow, storing water, removing harmful materials from water, and providing habitat for aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals. Stream corridors also have vegetation and soil characteristics distinctly different from surrounding uplands and support higher levels of species diversity, species densities, and rates of biological productivity than most other landscape elements. Streams and stream corridors evolve in concert with and in response to surrounding ecosystems. Changes within a surrounding ecosystem (e.g., watershed) will impact the physical, chemical, and biological processes occurring within a stream corridor. Stream systems normally function within natural ranges of flow, sediment movement, temperature, and other variables, in what is termed "dynamic equilibrium." When changes in these variables go beyond their natural ranges, dynamic equilibrium may be lost, often resulting in adjustments in the ecosystem that might conflict with societal needs. In some circumstances, a new dynamic equilibrium may eventually develop, but the time frames in which this happens can be lengthy, and the changes necessary to achieve this new balance significant.

Why is a Stream Corridor Restoration Document Needed?

Interest in restoring stream corridor ecosystems is expanding nationally and internationally. Research is underway and guidelines are being developed for stream corridor restoration in both the public and private sectors. The number of case studies, published papers, technology exchanges, research projects, and symposia on both the technical and process aspects of stream corridor restoration is increasing.

Over the years, many federal agencies have contributed to this growing body of knowledge and have issued manuals and handbooks pertaining in some way to stream restoration. Much of this older literature, however, is significantly different from this document in terms of philosophy and technique. Narrow in scope and focusing on only specific aspects, regions, objectives, or treatments, it may be outdated and not reflective of new restoration techniques and philosophies. The result has been confusion and concern both among government agencies and the public on how to evaluate the need for development and implementation of restoration initiatives.

In response, this document represents an unprecedented cooperative effort by the participating federal agencies to produce a common technical reference on stream corridor restoration. Recognizing that no two stream corridors and no two restoration initiatives are identical, this technical document broadly addresses the elements of restoration that apply in the majority of situations encountered.

The document is not a set of guidelines that cover every possible restoration situation, but it does provide a framework in which to plan restoration actions and alternatives.

What Does the Document Cover?

This document takes a more encompassing approach to restoration than most other texts and manuals. It provides broadly applicable guidance for common elements of the restoration process, but also provides alternatives, and references to alternatives, which may be appropriate for site-specific restoration activities. Moreover, the document incorporates and reflects the experiences of the collaborating agencies and provides a common technical reference which can be used to restore systems based on experiences and basic scientific knowledge.

As a general goal, this document promotes the use of ecological processes (physical, chemical, and biological) and minimally intrusive solutions to restore self-sustaining stream corridor functions. It provides information necessary to develop and select appropriate alternatives and solutions, and to make informed management decisions regarding valuable stream corridors and their watersheds. In addition, the document recognizes the complexity of most stream restoration work and promotes an integrated approach to restoration. It supports close cooperation among all participants in order to achieve a common set of objectives.

The guidance contained in this document is applicable nationwide in both urban and rural settings. The material presented applies to a range of stream types, including intermittent and perennial streams of all sizes, and rivers too small to be navigable by barges. It offers a scientific perspective on restoration work ranging from simple to complex, with the level of detail increasing as the scale moves from the landscape to the stream reach.

Note that there are several things that this document is not intended to be.

  • It is not a cookbook containing prescribed "recipes" or step-by-step instructions on how to restore a stream corridor.
  • While this document refers to issues such as nonpoint source pollution and best management practices, wetlands restoration and delineation, lake and reservoir restoration, and water quality monitoring, it is not meant to focus on these subjects.
  • It is not a policy-setting document. No contributing federal agency is strictly bound by its contents. Rather, it suggests and promotes a set of approaches, methods, and techniques applicable to most stream corridor restoration initiatives encountered by agencies and practitioners.
  • It is not intended to be an exhaustive research document on the subject of stream corridor restoration. It does provide, however, many references for those desiring a deeper understanding of the principles and theories underlying techniques and issues discussed in general terms.

Who is the Intended Audience?

The document is intended primarily for interdisciplinary technical and managerial teams and individuals responsible for planning, designing, and implementing stream corridor restoration initiatives. The document may also be useful to others who are working in stream corridors, including contractors, landowners, volunteers, agency staff, and other practitioners.

How is the Document Organized?

The document is organized to provide an overview of stream corridors, steps in restoration plan development, and guide-lines for implementing restoration.

The document has been divided into three principal parts. Part I provides back-ground on the fundamental concepts of stream corridor structure, processes, functions, and the effects of disturbance. Part II focuses on a general restoration plan development process comprised of several fundamental steps. Part III examines the information presented in Parts I and II to consider how it can be applied in a restoration initiative.

Because of the size and complexity of the document, two features are used to assist the reader to maintain a clear orientation within the document. These features will allow the reader to more easily apply the information to specific aspects of a stream corridor restoration initiative. These features are:

  • Chapter dividers that include major chapter sections and reader preview and review questions for each chapter. Figure I.5 presents a summary of these questions by chapter.
  • Short chapter summaries have been included at the beginning and end of each chapter that explain where the reader has been, where they are in the document and where they are going.

A special emphasis has been placed on document orientation due to the special mission that the document has to fulfill. The document audience will include readers from many different technical backgrounds and with various levels of training. The orientation features have been included to reinforce the comprehensive and interdisciplinary perspective of stream corridor restoration.

How is the Document Intended to be Used?

Use of the document mostly depends on the goals of the reader. To begin with, a quick overview of the material is suggested prior to more thorough reading. A reader seeking only a general understanding of the principles of stream restoration may skip over some of the technical details in the body of the document. Use of document sections, chapters, and headings allows each reader to readily identify whether further, more detailed reading on a subject will serve their purposes.

The reader is urged to recognize the interdisciplinary and technical nature of stream restoration. While some technical material may, on the surface, appear irrelevant, it may in fact, be highly relevant to a specific part of the process of restoring a stream corridor. Stream corridor restoration technologies and methodologies are evolving rapidly. Readers are encouraged to add their own notes on restoration and to make the document more relevant to local needs (e.g., a list of suitable native plant species for streambank revegetation).

Restoration, Rehabilitation, and Reclamation

  • Restoration is the process of repairing damage to the diversity and dynamics of ecosystems. Ecological restoration is the process of returning an ecosystem as closely as possible to predisturbance conditions and functions. Implicit in this definition is that ecosystems are naturally dynamic. It is therefore not possible to recreate a system exactly. The restoration process reestablishes the general structure, function, and dynamic but self-sustaining behavior of the ecosystem.
  • Rehabilitation is making the land useful again after a disturbance. It involves the recovery of ecosystem functions and processes in a degraded habitat. Rehabilitation does not necessarily reestablish the predisturbance condition, but does involve establishing geological and hydrologically stable landscapes that support the natural ecosystem mosaic.
  • Reclamation is a series of activities intended to change the biophysical capacity of an ecosystem. The resulting ecosystem is different from the ecosystem existing prior to recovery. The term has implied the process of adapting wild or natural resources to serve a utilitarian human purpose such as the conversion of riparian or wetland ecosystems to agricultural, industrial, or urban uses.

Restoration differs from rehabilitation and reclamation in that restoration is a holistic process not achieved through the isolated manipulation of individual elements. While restoration aims to return an ecosystem to a former natural condition, rehabilitation and reclamation imply putting a landscape to a new or altered use to serve a particular human purpose.


Part 1: Background
Lays the foundation for understanding the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of stream and riparian areas. Describes the key functions of a stream corridor in terms of habitat, conduit or transport, filter or barrier, source and sink. Discusses the interrelationships of scale to processes and functions: temporal, landscape, watershed, corridor, stream and reach. Introduces stream corridor disturbances and their effects on the functioning and characteristics of the stream corridor.

Chapter 1: Overview of Stream Corridors
Defines the stream corridor and discusses the importance of designing restoration actions in an appropriate spatial scale. Also introduced are the five major functions occurring within the corridor. The chapter concludes with sections that examine the stream corridor in lateral and longitudinal views.

Chapter 2: Stream Corridors Processes and Characteristics
Reviews three major natural processes which help build and maintain the structure and function of stream corridor ecosystems. The chapter begins with the processes involved with the movement of water over and under the land surface. Next is a review of geomorphic processes. The movement and deposition of sediment helps build many of the unique landforms found in the corridor. A discussion about processes involving plants and animals completes this chapter.

Chapter 3: Disturbances to Stream Corridors
Reviews the range of natural and human-induced disturbances that can stress the corridor ecosystem. These impacts have the potential to alter the ecosystem structure and impair its ability to perform key ecological functions. The main focus of this chapter is on land uses and the effects they have on a stream corridor.

Part 2: Developing a Stream Corridor Restoration Plan
Discusses the components of the planning process and specific steps, including project conception, implementation, evaluation, management, monitoring and adaptive management.

Chapter 4: Getting Organized, Identifying Problems and Opportunities
Introduces the first two steps of plan development. The first portion of the chapter focuses on the basics of getting organized and presents the first steps that should be undertaken to initiate the restoration process. The remainder of the chapter centers on problem/opportunity identification and introduces the basics of stream corridor condition analysis and problem assessment at the landscape, watershed, corridor, stream and reach scales.

Chapter 5: Developing Goals, Objectives, and Restoration Alternatives
Discusses the basic elements of defining goals and objectives, selecting alternatives, and designing restoration measures.

Chapter 6. Implement, Monitor, Evaluate and Adapt
Concentrates on the final stages of restoration plan development. It presents the basics of restoration implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and management within a planning context.

Part 3: Applying Restoration Principles
Understanding gained in Parts 1 and 2 is applied showing how condition analysis and design can lead to restoring stream corridor structure and function.

Chapter 7: Analysis of Corridor Condition
Focuses on methods for analyzing and measuring hydraulics, geomorphic, biological, physical and chemical conditions within a stream corridors.

Chapter 8: Restoration Design
Begins with large scale influences that design may bring to stream corridor ecosystems. It offers design guidance primarily at the stream corridor and stream scales, and concludes with land use considerations.

Chapter 9: Managing and Monitoring Stream Corridor Restoration
Focuses on technical issues and elements that restoration practioners should consider when installing, monitoring, and managing stream corridor restoration measures.

Techniques for Restoration

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Agencies Contributing to this Effort

  • United States Department of Agriculture:
    • Agricultural Research Service
    • Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service
    • Forest Service
    • Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • United States Department of Commerce
    • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
    • - National Marine Fisheries Service
  • United States Department of Defense:
    • Army Corps of Engineers
  • United States Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • United States Department of the Interior:
    • Bureau of Land Management
    • Bureau of Reclamation
    • Fish and Wildlife Service
    • United States Geological Survey
    • National Park Service
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Tennessee Valley Authority

What Awards did this document received?


  • Outstanding Achievement Award of 2000
    Renewable Natural Resources Foundation
  • President's Award of Excellence for 1999
    American Society of Landscape Architects