Riparian Ecosystems Monitoring

meandering creek amid conifer trees with horses grazing.
Horses grazing near Tsaile Creek in Canyon De Chelly National Monument


SCPN Monitoring Sites Webmap (NPS staff only)

Riparian ecosystems, especially in arid and semiarid regions, are areas of high natural resource value. In addition to water, riparian corridors include a diversity of landforms, plant and animal communities, physical processes, and microclimates. Because of this diversity of resources, riparian areas harbor a level of biodiversity disproportionate to their size within the larger landscape. But these areas face many threats. Drought and rising temperatures brought on by climate change, exotic species invasions, and human activities, such as grazing and recreation all take a toll on riparian ecosystems. The Southern Colorado Plateau Network (SCPN) selected riparian areas for monitoring, both for their value to the natural resources of network parks, and because of the threats they face.

The goal of monitoring riparian systems in network parks is to understand how riparian vegetation, hydrology, and geomorphology change, both in their composition and in extent, in response to disturbance events, such as large floods. To do this, SCPN will focus on a broad range of riparian habitats for monitoring. These habitats will fall into two categories: 1) Wadeable Streams and 2) Intermittent/ephemeral Streams. SCPN will use different customized approaches for monitoring these different classes of systems (see the Riparian Monitoring Protocol Implementation Plan for Park Units in the Southern Colorado Plateau Network for more information).

Four people wearing jackets, clustered around pvc pipe frames laid out on the ground on the bank of a stream. A measuring tape appears to be stretched out along the stream. bare shrubs and juniper trees in the area.
Monitoring vegetation dynamics is one of three objectives of riparian monitoring in Southern Colorado Plateau Network parks.


Monitoring Objectives

Specific objectives of SCPN’s riparian monitoring program include

  • Determine the status and trends in groundwater dynamics.

  • Determine the status and trends in geomorphic processes as reflected in channel and floodplain form.

  • Determine the status and trends in vegetation dynamics.

Vital Signs and Metrics

SCPN parks have identified three vital signs and associated metrics for this project. Not all metrics are measured for each class of stream. WS beside a metric indicates Wadeable Streams and IW indicates Intermittent/Ephemeral Streams.

1. Hydrology

  • Stream flow (WS)

  • Depth to groundwater (WS, IW)

2. Geomorphic processes

  • Floodplain width, elevation (WS, IW)

  • Channel width, depth (WS, IW)

  • Channel plan form (WS, IW)

  • Channel slope (WS)

  • Composition of bed material (WS)

3. Vegetation dynamics

  • Species richness (WS, IW)

  • Plant cover by species (WS, IW)

  • Basal area and density of woody species (WS, IW)

  • Canopy closure (WS)

  • Frequency of occurrence of invasive species (WS, IW)

  • Inventory of rare species (WS, IW)

Monitored in These Parks

The Southern Colorado Plateau Network will monitor riparian ecosystems in the following parks and streams. This is not a complete list. Additional parks and streams will be added by early 2019.

Monitoring Project Status

Hydrologic monitoring is in place at Aztec Ruins NM, Canyon De Chelly NM, Chaco Culture NHP, El Morro NM, Hubbell Trading Post NHS, Mesa Verde NP, Salinas Pueblo Missions NM, Walnut Canyon NM, and Wupatki NM. Vegetation and geomorphic components will begin to be added in 2019.The Riparian Monitoring Protocol Implementation Plan for Park Units in the Southern Colorado Plateau Network was published in 2018. Network parks will finalize the list of riparian sites to be monitored in December 2018.

Project Contact:

Matthew Johnson, Program Manager

Reports and Publications

Perkins, D. W., R. Weissinger, D. Witwicki, H. Thomas, A. Wight, K. Lund, M. Van Grinsven, L. McCoy, and E. Soles. 2018. Riparian Monitoring Protocol Implementation Plan for park units in the Southern Colorado Plateau Network. Natural Resource Report NPS/SCPN/NRR—2018/1766. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Periodically, we publish reports on each vital sign that describe what we are learning in the field. These monitoring reports are more in-depth than resource briefs and include data analysis and a discussion of our findings. Our monitoring reports provide the most recent published findings from our field work. 

Source: Data Store Saved Search 3266. To search for additional information, visit the Data Store.

Last updated: October 21, 2022