Riparian Areas

Riparian areas are zones where terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems directly interact with each other. They occur around numerous types of waterbodies including rivers, lakes, and springs and are dominated by hydrophilic vegetation.

Related resource topics for county planning include the following:


Map of Data

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The ESRI mxd file of the services used to create the above map.

Resource Information

According to the Utah Wildlife Action Plan, “riparian areas are the richest habitat type in terms of species diversity and wildlife abundance.” These areas provide habitat to a wide range of wildlife including mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, and fish. Riparian habitats provide wildlife with canopy cover, nesting areas, shade, and food sources [1].

Second, riparian areas play a major role in moderating erosion processes by slowing water, trapping sediment, and stabilizing river banks. Finally, riparian areas provide highly productive forage for livestock and are valuable areas within grazing allotments.

The health of riparian areas is influenced by many factors including hydrology, topography, climate, invasive species, and land use. Because riparian areas are highly sensitive to human disturbances, it is important to manage them appropriately.

Riparian areas can be negatively impacted in many ways, including:

  • Farming
  • Grazing
  • Noxious weeds
  • Road building
  • Fire
  • Development
  • Dams
  • Recreation

Management of riparian areas occurs at all levels for government. Local and county governments employ general planning processes and documents to establish policies and objectives for riparian areas. Federal agencies manage riparian areas and floodplains under Executive Orders 11988 and 11990, Sections 303 and 404 of the Clean Water Act, and also the Endangered Species Act. Riparian areas are also managed under individual resource management plans and other agency policies and guidelines, such as the Revised Forest Plan for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest [3].

Best Management Practices

Riparian areas should be managed to protect vegetation characteristics. Best management practices (BMPs) for riparian areas focus on preserving or restoring proper vegetative composition and function. BMPs should also address nearby land uses, which may also impact the health riparian area, such as stormwater runoff.

The Flowline data, Wetlands data, and Waterbody data can be used to identify riparian areas in the county.

Livestock: Grazing and watering can significantly impact riparian vegetation through trampling, soil compaction, excessive nutrient input, and consumption of vegetation. Proper management of livestock in these sensitive areas will prevent the most serious impacts. Management actions include vegetation use limits, fencing, herding, change of livestock class, temporary closures, repair of erosional channel features, change of season, and/or alternate development or relocation of water sources [3].

Noxious weeds: Weed control is an important component of riparian area management. Riparian areas are often disturbed by flooding, human land use, and other events, and they may become prime locations for the establishment of invasive and noxious weeds. In the MAG region, tamarisk, Russian olive and phragmites are common within riparian areas. Management includes good detection procedures, weed control and treatment, proper land use protocols, and restoration [4].

Conservation: This includes preserving existing riparian areas as well as restoring degraded ones. Preservation should include the dedication of sufficient water and groundwater to support vegetation. Limiting the removal of water from the system is critical for this purpose. Restoration efforts must consider factors like hydrology, floodplain, and adjacent land use. Restoration design of riparian areas should follow a protocol that accounts for stream hydrology, soil characteristics, vegetation, adjacent land use, recreation, and other influences [5]. Stream or river modifications may require permits. The Utah Division of Water Rights processes stream alteration permits in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Land use: Human uses, such as camping, should also be excluded from riparian areas for certain parts of the year [1].

Stormwater: Management of stormwater from developed areas and agricultural operations is an important factor in maintaining riparian areas. Runoff containing excess sediment and nutrients, high salinity levels, heavy metals, and petroleum products can damage sensitive riparian areas. It is often possible to address these pollutants with engineered structures such as constructed vegetated swales [5].

Economic Considerations

Economic benefits of riparian areas are difficult to quantify. They are intertwined with nonmarket ecosystem services like clean water and wildlife habitat [6] [7]. Engineered water treatment plants are extremely expensive. Pre- or post-water treatment methods that utilize passive bioengineering techniques, including riparian area management, can significantly reduce water treatment costs [8].

Other cost considerations involve restoration projects, such as the ongoing removal of phragmites along the shores of Utah Lake. This multi-year project cost at least $215,000 [9] and involved significant manpower. In this light, proper management, including preventative measures to control weeds, could be more efficient over the long term.  

Impact Considerations

Because riparian areas result from overlapping aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, the factors that affect water bodies and adjacent uplands have the most direct impacts on riparian areas.

The Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative data shows projects (Proposed, Current, Completed, Pending) that may affect riparian areas.

Data Download
  GIS Data Map Service Web Map Document  Tabular Data  Website
Data NameData ExplanationPublication DateSpatial AccuracyContact
National Wetlands Inventory (NWI)
Use to identify location and type of wetlands

USFWS data download
USGS web mapper is live data;
Map Service date is 10/2015.
1:50,000Primary Source: Utah Geological Survey or US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetland Inventory

USGS National Hydrography Dataset (NHD)
(AGRC) , (USGS) , (USGS)
Lakes, Rivers, Streams, & SpringsAGRC download 1/18/2013;
USGS download 10/15/2015;
National Map Service Live Data;
1:24,000United States Geological Survey
Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative (UWRI)
Terrestrial and aquatic/riparian treatment areas associated with the UWRI, includes proposed, active, pending, and completed projectsLive Data1:24,000Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative


  1. Utah Department of Natural Resources, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. 2015. Utah Wildlife Action Plan, Draft Version 6-4-2015.
  2. Wasatch-Cache National Forest. 2003. Revised Forest Plan for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
  3. Bellows, Barbara. 2003. Managed Grazing in Riparian Areas. Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas.
  4. Sheley 1995. Managing Riparian Weeds. Rangelands 17(2).
  5. Johnson, Craig, and Susan Buffler. 2008. Riparian Buffer Design Guidelines For Water Quality And Wildlife Habitat Functions On Agricultural Landscapes In The Intermountain West. USDA
  6. US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. 2009. Social and Economic Value of Riparian Environments.
  7. Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Water Quality. 2013. Nutrient Pollution in Utah Fact Sheet.
  8. Michie, Ryan. 2010. Cost Estimate to Restore Riparian Forest Buffers and Improve Stream Habitat in the Willamette Basin, Oregon. Portland: State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
  9. Utah Lake Commission. 2016. Phragmites Removal 2014. Accessed August 28, 2016.