6A – Protection and Conservation of Wetlands and Riparian Areas

Management Measure

Protect and conserve functional wetlands and riparian areas

Much of the planet's life depends on the existence of wetlands. They are vital to the survival of many fish and other aquatic life forms, birds, and plants. Wetlands that border first order streams were found by Whigham and others (1988) to be efficient at removing nitrate from ground water and sediment from surface waters. When located downstream from first-order streams, wetlands and riparian areas were found to be less effective than those located upstream at removing sediment and nutrient from the stream itself because of a smaller percentage of stream water coming into contact with the wetlands (Whigham et al., 1988). It has also been estimated that the portion of a wetland or riparian area immediately below the source of NPS pollution might be the most efficient at removing pollutants (Cooper et al., 1987; Lowrance et al., 1983; Phillips, 1989).

Functional wetlands and riparian systems provide services such as enhanced water quality, surface and ground water storage; flood control (adequate set-backs implied) and storm surge attenuation; contain valuable wildlife and aquatic habitats; and enable recreation and other cultural activities. These services are free of charge because they are self-sustaining. Highly modified wetlands and riparian systems are typically only managed for a few beneficial uses or services, are very costly to maintain, and their long-term sustainability is uncertain.

Management Practices

The purpose of this management measure is to protect the water quality improvement and NPS pollution reduction benefits derived from wetlands and riparian areas. Wetlands are characterized by a combination of standing water at the surface or root zone, unique soil conditions, and vegetation adapted to wet conditions (Mitsch and Gosselink, 1993). This management measure should combine structural and programmatic measures to protect wetland and riparian areas so that they maintain their existing functions. Recommended measures and practices include the following:

  • Consider wetlands and riparian areas and their pollutant attenuation potential on a watershed or landscape and maintain their function as part of a continuum of filters along rivers, streams, and coastal waters.
  • Use historical ecology to help determine what type of wetland to conserve and where to focus those conservation efforts.
  • Identify existing functions of those wetlands and riparian areas with significant NPS control potential when implementing NPS management practices. Do not alter wetlands or riparian areas to improve their water quality function at the expense of their other functions.
  • Do not place surface water runoff ponds or sediment retention basins in healthy wetland systems.
  • Conduct permitting, licensing, certification, and nonregulatory NPS pollution abatement activities in a manner that protects wetland functions.
  • Obtain easements or full acquisition rights for wetlands and riparian areas along streams, bays, and estuaries.
  • Use zoning and protective ordinances to control activities that have an adverse impact on these targeted areas through special area zoning and transferable development rights.
  • Ensure that State water quality standards apply to wetlands.
  • Establish, maintain, and strengthen regulatory and enforcement programs.
  • Encourage the use of programs that restore wetlands and riparian areas.
  • Educate landowners and agencies on the role of wetlands and riparian areas in protecting water quality and on management practices for restoring stream edges.
  • Provide a mechanism for private landowners and agencies in mixed ownership watersheds to develop, by consensus, goals, management plans, and appropriate practices and to obtain assistance from federal and State agencies.
  • Use appropriate pretreatment practices such as vegetated treatment systems or detention or retention basins to prevent adverse impacts on wetland functions that affect the abatement of NPS pollution from hydrologic changes, sedimentation, or contaminants.
  • Reduce erosion and, to the extent practicable, retain sediment onsite during and after construction.

Programs, Policy and Government Agencies

  • CALFED Bay-Delta Program develops and implements a long-term comprehensive plan to restore ecological health and improve water management for beneficial uses of the Bay-Delta System.
  • California Resources Agency is responsible for the implementation of the State Wetlands Conservation Policy. The policy has three main goals: (1) no net loss of wetlands and a net gain of wetlands, (2) reduction in the complexity of wetland conservation laws and regulations, and (3) implementation of landowner incentive programs and cooperative planning programs. The program is divided into three geographic areas: Central Valley, San Francisco Bay, and Southern California.
  • Department of Fish and Wildlife, Habitat Conservation Branch consists of multiple programs dedicated towards the conservation and preservation of habitats and species in California and include the following: California Endangered Species Act (CESA), California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Lake and Streambed Alteration Program (1600), Timber Harvest Plan Review, and Natural Community Conservation Program (NCCP).
  • NRCS, Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) provides technical and financial support to help landowners with their wetland restoration efforts. The NRCS goal is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and values, along with optimum wildlife habitat, on every acre enrolled in the program. This program offers landowners an opportunity to establish long-term conservation and wildlife practices and protection.
  • NRCS, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) is a voluntary program for people who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat primarily on private land. Through WHIP USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service provides both technical assistance and up to 75 percent cost-share assistance to establish and improve fish and wildlife habitat.
  • San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission is charged with the protection and enhancement of San Francisco Bay. Protecting the Suisun Marsh and other wetlands around the bay is one of the responsibilities of the Commission.
  • SFEI, Historical Ecology Program. Given the rapid and complex landscape changes of the past two centuries, the documentation of landscape ecological history has become an essential tool for understanding current conditions and the potential for restoration in most parts of the world.
  • USDA, Swampbuster Program requires all agricultural producers to protect the wetlands on the farms they own or operate if they want to be eligible for USDA farm program benefits. Producers will not be eligible if they plant an agricultural commodity on a converted wetland that was converted by drainage, leveling, or any other means after December 23, 1985, or convert a wetland for the purpose of or to make agricultural commodity production possible after November 28, 1990.

General Resources

  • Central Valley Joint Venture (CVJV) was established in 1988 to "protect, maintain, and restore habitat to increase waterfowl populations to desired levels in the Central Valley of California consistent with other objectives of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan." An Implementation Board of representatives from the California Waterfowl Association, Defenders of Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, National Audubon Society, Waterfowl Habitat Owners Alliance, and The Nature Conservancy guides the CVJV. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, California Department of Food and Agriculture, and other organizations and agencies provide technical assistance and advice to the Board.
  • National Research Council, Compensating for Wetland Losses under the Clean Water Act provides information on wetland mitigation and permitting guidelines, wetland restoration case studies, and analyses of soil, plant, and animal communities for mitigation sites. The document is available for browsing in HTML format or printing as a PDF file.
  • Options for Wetland Conservation: A Guide for California Land Owners describes a wide variety of approaches that have been devised to assist landowners in protecting wetlands according to their different needs, within the context of broader conservation goals. The array of options includes technical information and advice, and financial contributions for projects or practices that provide long-term improvements for wetland values. To obtain a copy, contact the California State Coastal Conservancy, 1330 Broadway Street, Suite 1100, Oakland, CA 94612 (Telephone: 510-286-1015; Fax: 510-286-0470).
  • Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Economic Valuation of Wetlands on the River Basin Scale this discussion paper addresses topics such as why it is important to estimate ecosystem value, the relationship between ecology and economics, identifying and quantifying wetland values, and using cost-benefit analysis as a tool for decision making.
  • Riparian Habitat Joint Venture (RHJV) has as its goal to conserve, increase, and improve riparian habitat to protect and enhance California’s native resident birds and neotropical migratory birds. California Partners in Flight initiated the RHJV project in 1994. To date, 18 federal, state, and private organizations have signed the landmark Cooperative Agreement to protect and enhance habitats for native land birds throughout California.
  • Save San Francisco Bay Association, Save The Bay seeks to preserve, restore, and protect the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta Estuary as healthy and biologically diverse ecosystems essential to the well-being of the human and natural communities they sustain.
  • USEPA, Managing Wetlands to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution fact sheet, Nonpoint Pointer Number 11, includes information on the use of wetlands to control NPS pollution.


California Resources Agency. 1998. California Wetlands Information System: California’s Valuable Wetlands. Last updated August 13, 1998. Accessed February 22, 2008.

Cooper, J.R., and J.W. Gilliam. 1987. Phosphorus redistribution from cultivated fields into riparian areas. Soil Science Society of America Journal

Hilty, J.A., and A.M. Merenlender. 2004. Use of riparian corridors and vineyards by mammalian predators in Northern California. Conservation Biology 18(1): 126–135.

Lowrance, R.R., R.L. Todd, and L.E. Asmussen. 1983. Waterborne Nutrient Budgets for the Riparian Zone of an Agricultural Watershed. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 10:371-384.

Mitsch, W., and J. Gosselink. 1993. Wetlands. Second Edition. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, NY. Phillips, J.D. 1989. Nonpoint source pollution control effectiveness of riparian forests along a coastal plain river. Journal of Hydrology 110(1989):221-237.

USEPA. 2001. Chapter 4: Management Measure for Protection of Wetlands and Riparian Areas. In National Management Measures to Protect and Restore Wetlands and Riparian Areas for the Abatement of Nonpoint Source Pollution (Draft). EPA 841-B-01-001. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC.

Whigham, D.F., C. Chitterling, and B. Palmer. 1988. Impacts of freshwater wetlands on water quality: A landscape perspective. Environmental Management 12(5):663-671.

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