History and status of physical habitat assessments of USA streams


Field assessment techniques are needed to quantify the physical characteristics for stream restoration and ecological monitoring purposes. This paper describes the origins, history, and present status of physical habitat assessment protocols currently in use in the USA. While the driving force for the development of standard procedures for classifying and quantifying stream properties has been to support ecological analyses from the biological perspective, the roots of the methods and their scientific rationale are more multidisciplinary. For example, the concepts of scale-dependent variables, watershed linkages, dominant/bankfull discharge, and channelsediment relationships were developed by workers in geography, geology, hydrology, and engineering. A 50 state survey shows that most stream assessment protocols are modifications of those published by Federal agencies, including the Rapid Bioassessment Protocol (EPA, 1989, revision 1999), the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EPA, 1998, revision 2001), and the National Water-Quality Assessment Program (USGS, 1993, revision 1998). The EPAs original RBP (1989) was based on Stream Classification Guidelines for Wisconsin (Wisconsin DNR, 1982) and Methods for Evaluating Stream, Riparian, and Biotic Conditions developed by the USDA Forest Service (1983). EMAP and NAWQA were developed in response to the need to incorporate broader scale habitat assessments within water resource programs. About one third of the states responding to the survey claimed to use protocols designed specifically for physical habitat assessment. Of those responses, only a small portion implements those assessments as part of a long-term monitoring program. The origin, overall organization, and logistics of these methods for field studies are discussed. The need for effective and scientific stream assessment techniques is underscored by recent trends toward the development of long-term monitoring programs, stream classification systems, human impact studies, and linked studies of field-based and remotely-sensed data.


Geography, Geology, and Planning

Document Type

Conference Proceeding



Publication Date


Journal Title

Proceedings of the 2004 Self-Sustaining Solutions for Streams, Wetlands, and Watersheds Conference