Linking Land Use Change, Stream Geomorphology, and Aquatic Biodiversity in a Hierarchical Classification Scheme

EPA Grant Number: R830595
Title: Linking Land Use Change, Stream Geomorphology, and Aquatic Biodiversity in a Hierarchical Classification Scheme
Investigators: Watzin, Mary C.
Current Investigators: Watzin, Mary C. , Hession, W. C. , Keeton, William S. , Troy, Austin R.
Institution: University of Vermont
EPA Project Officer: Hiscock, Michael
Project Period: December 1, 2002 through November 30, 2005 (Extended to November 30, 2006)
Project Amount: $664,339
RFA: Development of Watershed Classification Systems for Diagnosis of Biological Impairment in Watersheds (2002) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Water and Watersheds , Water



We propose to develop and evaluate a watershed and stream reach classification system based on the relationship between land use change, river geomorphic condition, riparian habitat fragmentation, and riverine ecological condition. The goal is a geographically independent management tool that can be applied in a hierarchical approach, linking changes in land use to expected changes in geomorphology and the riparian corridor, and then linking geomorphology to aquatic ecology. Because different factors and responses might be expected at different scales, the classification system will explicitly address issues of scale.

Our objectives are as follows: (1) beginning at the finer scale, determine which geomorphic classes can be consistently related to the ecological condition of a stream reach; (2) expanding to a coarser scale, determine what land use metrics best predict those geomorphic classes that consistently relate to ecological condition; (3) evaluate the ability of our classification system to target sites in greatest need of watershed management and stream restoration based on current land use and geomorphology; (4) develop and evaluate the ability of our classification system to identify sites in need of conservation based on predicted land use change and resulting effects on geomorphology and aquatic ecology; and (5) develop a general framework for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and others to use the resulting classification system as a foundation for statewide watershed protection, management, restoration, and education.


Our experimental approach uses a stratified random sampling of 30 stream reaches across six watersheds and five geomorphic classes. At each reach, coordinated measures of the geomorphic conditions, riparian vegetation, and aquatic habitat and biodiversity (macroinvertebrates, fish, and water-dependent birds) will be made. Remote sensing and GIS will be used to develop metrics that describe the land use, forest fragmentation, and riparian zone fragmentation. Multivariate techniques will be used to quantify the relationships between those metrics, the five geomorphic classes sampled, and aquatic biodiversity. Land use change modeling in GIS will be used to identify land areas that contribute to watershed impairment and to rank hydrologic units according to their current and projected future ecological impairment. The final nested classification system will group stream reaches and watershed units by their current and predicted future ecological integrity or degree of biological impairment.

Expected Results:

The proposed study will provide a better understanding of the linkages between watershed condition, fluvial morphology, and aquatic ecosystem health. These linkages will form the basis of a geographically independent watershed classification system that will simplify the complex relationships between streams and their surrounding basins. The classification system will be presented in a framework that can be used by managers as a regular part of watershed planning and risk assessment efforts to target sites in greatest need of restoration and conservation. The proposed research will improve risk assessment and management by: (1) identifying key measurement endpoints for watershed-level risk assessment and management activities; (2) constructing exposure-response profiles for urbanization impacts on aquatic ecosystems as regulated by fluvial morphology and riparian condition; (3) developing a classification system for prioritizing risks of current and future development and system sensitivity to human impacts; and (4) providing improved data on specific ecological effects of stream and river instability.

Publications and Presentations:

Publications have been submitted on this project: View all 46 publications for this project

Journal Articles:

Journal Articles have been submitted on this project: View all 6 journal articles for this project

Supplemental Keywords:

watershed classification, geomorphic classification, riparian habitat fragmentation, riverine ecology, aquatic ecosystem., RFA, Scientific Discipline, INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION, Water, ECOSYSTEMS, Ecosystem Protection/Environmental Exposure & Risk, Aquatic Ecosystems & Estuarine Research, Water & Watershed, Aquatic Ecosystem, Monitoring/Modeling, Water Quality Monitoring, Terrestrial Ecosystems, Ecology and Ecosystems, Watersheds, anthropogenic processes, nutrient transport, anthropogenic stress, bioassessment, watershed classification, biodiversity, watershed management, ecosystem monitoring, nutrient flux, conservation, diagnostic indicators, ecosystem indicators, stream geomorphology, aquatic ecosystems, water quality, bioindicators, watershed sustainablility, biological indicators, ecosystem stress, watershed assessment, nitrogen uptake, conservation planning, aquatic biota, land use, restoration planning, watershed restoration, ecosystem response

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2003
  • 2004 Progress Report
  • 2005
  • Final Report