Modeling and classifying variable width riparian zones utilizing digital elevation models, flood height data, digital soil data and national wetlands inventory : a new approach for riparian zone delineation

Sinan A. Abood, Michigan Technological University


Riparian zones are dynamic, transitional ecosystems between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems with well defined vegetation and soil characteristics. Development of an all-encompassing definition for riparian ecotones, because of their high variability, is challenging. However, there are two primary factors that all riparian ecotones are dependent on: the watercourse and its associated floodplain. Previous approaches to riparian boundary delineation have utilized fixed width buffers, but this methodology has proven to be inadequate as it only takes the watercourse into consideration and ignores critical geomorphology, associated vegetation and soil characteristics. Our approach offers advantages over other previously used methods by utilizing: the geospatial modeling capabilities of ArcMap GIS; a better sampling technique along the water course that can distinguish the 50-year flood plain, which is the optimal hydrologic descriptor of riparian ecotones; the Soil Survey Database (SSURGO) and National Wetland Inventory (NWI) databases to distinguish contiguous areas beyond the 50-year plain; and land use/cover characteristics associated with the delineated riparian zones. The model utilizes spatial data readily available from Federal and State agencies and geospatial clearinghouses. An accuracy assessment was performed to assess the impact of varying the 50-year flood height, changing the DEM spatial resolution (1, 3, 5 and 10m), and positional inaccuracies with the National Hydrography Dataset (NHD) streams layer on the boundary placement of the delineated variable width riparian ecotones area. The result of this study is a robust and automated GIS based model attached to ESRI ArcMap software to delineate and classify variable-width riparian ecotones.