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Natural Heritage Elements - Community level

Riparian and Aquatic Habitats 


                 The word 'riparian' literally means of, or pertaining to, the bank of a river or lake. Riparian areas are ecosystems comprised of streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and floodplains that form a complex and interrelated hydrological system. These ecosystems extend up and down streams and along lakeshores, and include all land that is directly affected by surface water (Verry et al., 2000). Riparian ecosystems are unique in their high biological diversity. They are “characterized by frequent disturbances related to inundation, transport of sediments, and the abrasive and erosive forces of water and ice movement that, in turn, create habitat complexity and variability,resulting in ecologically diverse communities' (Verry et al., 2000). 

                Throughout this manual, riparian and aquatic habitats are discussed together because they are highly interdependent, thus planning for the conservation of each of them is most effective when they are considered together. Conserving riparian areas is one of the most effective ways of maintaining high quality aquatic habitats. 



                 Because of the dynamic nature of rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds, riparian areas have a wide variety of plant and animal communities. These communities form an interconnected food web that ranges from tiny microorganisms to bears and humans. This web also includes reptiles and amphibians, plants, waterfowl, songbirds, bats, mink, and otter. Healthy riparian ecosystems give life to all the species that inhabit them, as well as the species that use the lakes and streams near them, including those species that use bodies of water only at certain times during their life cycles, such as during breeding or migration. 

                Riparian areas are important not only for the plants and animals that inhabit them, but also for what they provide to the waters near them. The downed wood, leaves, and similar organic material that riparian areas contribute to aquatic systems are important components of the food base and habitat structure in Vermont 's water bodies. Mature trees in riparian areas also shade aquatic habitats, which helps to reduce water temperatures. Riparian vegetation is crucial in filtering overland runoff, thus protecting water quality, and in stabilizing stream banks, thus preventing excessive stream-bank erosion and sediment buildup in aquatic habitats. 

                We value riparian areas for the preservation of the life that depends on them, including human life. These ecosystems protect our water quality for drinking and recreation, protect our investments from flood and ice flow damage, and provide for our recreation, education, spiritual well being, and sense of place. Conserving these ecosystems allows them to carry out their many functions, which include

         protecting water quality and aquatic habitats;

         providing habitats for terrestrial wildlife, including travel and dispersal corridors;

         supporting significant natural communities; and

         protecting channel-forming processes and channel stability. 

                Despite the numerous functions and values of riparian areas, an estimated 70% to 90% of natural riparian vegetation, vital to maintaining the integrity of riparian ecosystems and biodiversity, has already been lost or is degraded due to human activities nationwide (Doppelt et al. 1993). In Vermont , many of our rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands no longer have functioning riparian areas due to more than 200 years of intensive human use of the land. Planning for and implementing strategies that will conserve or provide long-term stewardship for these vital habitats will slow this trend toward environmental degradation and restore the rich biodiversity associated with these areas. 


Conservation Goals

                 A town or other planning group might adopt goals for the conservation of riparian and aquatic habitats like the ones below. 

1.        Provide for the long-term stewardship of and/or protect existing high-quality riparian habitat within the town. 

2.        Increase the number of miles of naturally vegetated stream bank and lakeshore in town. Natural vegetation should ultimately consist of native woody plant species, except where natural meadows occur, usually in association with wetlands.  

3.        Provide for the long-term stewardship and/or protection of existing high quality aquatic features and riparian habitats throughout the town or area of interest. 


Obtaining and Interpreting Information

Information Sources

See Resources for information on how to contact or visit the websites of the agencies and organizations mentioned below.

  • Vermont Center for Geographic Information: The Center has digital data layers, including orthophotos and surface waters, that can be used to map riparian areas.

  • Vermont Mapping Program: This program is administered by the Vermont Department of Taxes and supplies each town (by law) with two sets of 1:5,000 scale orthophoto printouts for its geographic area. They also sell digital format orthophotos (on CD-ROM) and will do custom print-outs of orthophotos (and some other spatial data layers) at other scales for a fee.

  • Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Water Quality Division:  The Division has a listing of local watershed and lake associations, many of which have undertaken watershed assessments and local inventories of aquatic habitats. The River Management Section of the Water Quality Division also manages a statewide database of watershed assessment data, ranging from watershed-wide to site-specific data related to stream geomorphology and riparian and aquatic habitats.

  • Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation:   and the Vermont Biodiversity Project: The DEC and the VBP have identified examples of high quality aquatic features throughout the state that represent the best examples of specific aquatic species assemblages. These aquatic features are mapped digitally and are available from the Vermont Center for Geographic Information.

  • Regional Planning Commissions: A commission may also have mapped useful watershed or aquatic habitat data and can supply printouts of digital data layers for a fee.

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program: This program provides technical and financial assistance to landowners wishing to restore aquatic habitats.

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service: This agency provides several programs offering technical and financial assistance to agricultural landowners interested in creating and maintaining riparian buffers and other conservation practices. 


Buffer Zones & Riparian Habitat Riparian Forest Cover Riparian Forest Cover
This map (left) shows standard width buffers of three different sizes, 50', 100', and 330'. Viewing different width buffers on a map enables planners to evaluate how different riparian habitat conservation strategies interact with other town conservation priorities and other planning issues. Standard buffer widths are useful in implementing strategies such as overlay districts, development setbacks, and buffer ordinances. These images show forested riparian areas of a minimum of 330' wide throughout the town (center), and a close-up (right) of one of those areas with the orthophoto underneath. Orthophotos were used to identify forest cover. Identifying existing forested riparian areas is useful in applying conservation strategies such as acquisition of land or conservation easements, and for understanding where other natural heritage elements, such as connecting habitat, coincide with riparian forest cover.

Interpreting the Information  

                 Because of its association with bodies of water, riparian habitat can be identified on topographic maps and aerial or ortho photographs. Simply locating a stream, river, or lake on a map is the first step in identifying where riparian habitat may be present in a town. The distance that riparian ecosystems extend from the water's edge into the surrounding uplands varies greatly depending on topography. In general, the larger the body of water, the wider the adjacent riparian area. For example, on a small stream (e.g., 10 feet wide) the effective riparian area may only extend out 50 feet from the stream bank. In a large river such as the Winooski, the effective riparian area may be thousands of feet wide, encompassing wide floodplains that are inundated by water annually. Mountainous headwater streams are usually contained within steep narrow valleys and thus have narrow riparian areas that quickly transition into upland forests. At the other end of the spectrum, large streams and rivers winding through low gradient valleys usually have wide riparian areas that stretch across the entire valley bottom. It is important to understand, however, that even though small streams in steep narrow valleys have narrow bands of riparian habitat, the upland forests surrounding these streams play an important role in protecting the riparian habitat, especially where steep slopes threaten landslides, rapid storm water runoff, and hillside 'gulleying.' 

                Your specific Conservation Goals will dictate how large an area you want to consider for riparian habitat conservation. But in general, a naturally vegetated 100-foot-wide riparian buffer on each side of a stream will protect many of the functions associated with healthy riparian habitat. A 330- foot buffer will protect nearly all the functions we value in riparian habitat, including highquality cover for many wildlife species. Because riparian habitat provides many functions important to fish and wildlife resources, it is helpful to understand these areas by the functions they provide. The book Buffers for Wetlands and Surface Waters: A Guidebook for New Hampshire Municipalities is a good source of detailed information about different buffer widths and the species and functions they protect. (See Bibliography) 


Conservation Strategies

                 Once information has been gathered on riparian and aquatic habitats, you can develop specific Conservation Strategies to help achieve your goals. Some examples of strategies specific to each goal follow.   

1. Goal: Provide long-term stewardship of and/or protect existing high-quality riparian habitat within the town.  


        a. Include specific language in the town plan supporting the stewardship, protection, and restoration of riparian habitat. Sample Language: Lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams will be protected from encroaching development, including roads and driveways, by maintaining and/or establishing undisturbed, naturally vegetated riparian buffers on their banks.  

        b. Incorporate development setbacks and buffers from surface waters into town zoning regulations. Create a separate zoning district or an overlay district including surface waters and riparian buffers of designated width(s). These districts will provide the most protection to riparian habitat and aquatic resources if all development is prohibited in these areas. A minimum setback and buffer encompassing greater, will protect many riparian habitat functions in most situations. The larger the setback and buffer the more riparian functions will be provided. 

        c. In addition to the setback of actual structures, secondary activities such as footpaths and other clearing associated with development can be regulated to protect riparian habitat functions. A set of conditions designed to protect riparian habitat can be stipulated through the conditional use determination and/or site plan review processes for those developments that fall under these reviews. (See Tools for details on conditional use and site plan review.) Specific conditions may include: 1) requiring a riparian vegetation management plan to be approved by an appropriate professional, and 2) requiring the construction of foot paths and other activities that will disturb natural vegetation and ground cover to follow design specifications, including limits on the amount and types of vegetation to be cleared. 

        d. Map existing riparian forest cover (within 330' wide buffer) throughout the town using GIS or paper maps. Target these forested riparian areas in open space planning and land and easement acquisition programs. Give higher priority to those riparian lands that also contain other natural heritage elements. e. Write land management plans designed to protect the ecological functions of riparian habitat (and other natural heritage elements) for town-owned lands. 

        e. Allow for PUDs in the town zoning and/or subdivision regulations as an alternative to conventional subdivisions, and require, or provide incentives (e.g., density bonuses) for PUD designs that cluster development away from riparian habitat. 

        f. Adopt town road management standards designed to protect riparian habitat and their associated surface waters. See the Bibliography for resources providing information on road standards designed to protect riparian habitat and surface waters. g. Plan to locate new roads (both public and private) and driveways such that functioning riparian buffers are maintained between roads and surface waters. Incorporate into subdivision or zoning regulations minimum setbacks from surface waters of 100 feet or greater for new roads and driveways created through subdivisions. 


2. Goal: Increase the number of miles of naturally vegetated riparian streambank and lakeshore in town. Natural vegetation should ultimately consist of native woody plant species except where natural meadows occur, usually in association with wetlands.  


        a. Require restoration of riparian habitat in site plan or subdivision review. Riparian restoration can be accomplished through site plan review by designating 'no-mow' zones along surface waters within the project site, allowing for natural regeneration of woody vegetation, and/or by requiring active planting of native woody species in the riparian area. This strategy applies to development projects occurring on lands that contain previously degraded riparian habitat, commonly found on former farmland. See 'Bibliography and Works Cited' for resources on riparian planting restoration techniques. Sample Language: The Development Review Board shall require restoration of degraded riparian habitats through natural regeneration of native riparian vegetation by designating 'no mow zones' and/or by planting native woody plant species appropriate to the site in 'planting zones.' The developer shall guarantee plantings with a performance bond for a minimum of five years. No-mow zones and planting zones shall be described and designated as protected riparian habitat in common-land covenants, easements, and other appropriate legal documents. This language will require a definition of 'riparian habitat' and 'degraded.' Sample Language: Riparian habitat is naturally vegetated land adjacent to surface waters, extending from the ordinary high water mark (or top of bank) of a surface water into adjacent upland communities. Degraded riparian habitat contains sparse or no native woody plants above ordinary high water (or top of bank), is largely absent of a duff layer, and is either devoid of all vegetation or has only herbaceous vegetation that is typically fallow field, lawn, garden, crop, or pasture. An example of a riparian area dominated by herbaceous vegetation and not considered degraded is where wetlands containing native herbaceous plants are present within the riparian area, and where erosional river bluff natural communities occur, as such areas do not naturally support woody vegetation.  

        b. Initiate an impact fee and use the collected fees to manage town open space lands, forests, parks, or recreation areas, including restoration of riparian areas (or other natural heritage elements). 

        c. Allow for PUDs in town zoning regulations as an alternative to conventional subdivisions, and require or provide incentives (e.g., density bonuses) for PUD designs that cluster development away from riparian habitat and actively restore degraded riparian habitat.  

        d. Offer density bonuses to subdivision developments that actively restore and protect riparian habitat by means of conservation easements or common-land designations with specific conditions intended to restore and/or protect riparian habitats. Sample Language: Density bonuses can be earned for riparian habitat conservation at the rate of X units for every X square feet (acres) of riparian habitat protected and, where necessary, restored with native woody vegetation. To be eligible for a density bonus, the riparian area conserved must be a minimum of 100 feet wide, extending out perpendicular from the surface water's top of bank, and must extend along the body of water for a minimum of 500 feet or the length of the parcels under review, whichever is smaller. Land beyond 600 feet from the top of bank does not count towards the density bonus. Riparian habitat protection must be guaranteed by means of an easement or covenant. Degraded riparian areas currently lacking woody vegetation shall be restored with native plant species appropriate to the site. Restoration work shall be bonded to ensure success of the plantings for five years, to commence upon the completion of all required riparian restoration planting.  

        e. Work with local watershed associations, conservation commissions, and Natural Resource Conservation Districts to assist landowners in restoring riparian habitats on their lands. Assistance includes informing landowners about federal riparian restoration cost-sharing programs (such as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife programs), organizing volunteers to plant trees, raising outside funds to help with cost-sharing matches, and educating about the importance of riparian habitat. 


3. Goal: Provide for long-term stewardship and/or the protection of existing high quality aquatic features and riparian habitats throughout the town or area of interest.  


        a. Include specific language in the town plan supporting the protection of priority aquatic features and overall aquatic habitat. Sample Language: Lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams will be protected so as to maintain their natural conditions. Stream channels and lakeshore alterations will be restricted, removal of large woody debris from channels and shorelines will be discouraged, and naturally vegetated riparian buffers will be protected and/or restored on streambanks and lakeshores.  

        b. Target the high-quality aquatic features identified by the Vermont DEC and VBP in open space planning and land and easement acquisition programs. Ensure protection of these resources and other high quality aquatic habitats identified in your area through long-term stewardship, easement conditions, and land management plans that include the following:

         Designate naturally vegetated riparian buffer zones;

         Educate landowners to leave large woody debris from stream channels and lakeshores or implement restrictions;

         Prohibit channelization, dredging, filling, or other activities altering the natural form and function of stream channels and lakeshores; and

         Limit stream crossings as much as possible and require stream crossing to be properly sized and installed so as not to disrupt or prevent aquatic species' movements and to maintain the natural form and function of the stream channel. 

        c. Using subdivision regulations, PUDs, conditional use, or site plan review, direct developers to maintain stream channels and lakeshores in their natural condition. Sample Language: Activities that alter the natural form and function of a surface water, such as filling, dredging, damming, channelization, removal of riparian vegetation, and removal of large woody debris, shall be prohibited in all developments subject to review by the Zoning Development Review Board. Furthermore, all zoning permits (including conditional use permits and subdivision approval) will be issued on condition of the developer submitting proof of compliance with all applicable state and federal regulations pertaining to surface waters, including, but not limited to: Section 404 Clean Water Act, Section 401 Clean Water Act, 10 V.S.A Chapter 47 Vermont Water Pollution Control Act, 10 V.S.A Chapter 41 Regulation of Stream Flow, 10 V.S.A 43 Dams, 10 V.S.A. Chapter 111 Section 4607 Obstructing Streams, and 10 V.S.A. Chapter 151 Vermont 's Land Use and Development Law (Act 250). This or similar language can be incorporated into a riparian and surface water overlay district, or can be part of a stand-alone town zoning ordinance.  


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