What is a Stream Management Plan?

Stream management plans (SMP) are data-driven assessments of river health that help communities prioritize how to protect or enhance environmental and recreational assets in their watershed. A well-developed SMP uses biological, hydrological, geomorphological and other data to assess the flows, water quality parameters, and other physical conditions that are needed to support collaboratively-identified environmental and/or recreational values. Using this assessment, stakeholders can identify and prioritize management actions to maintain or improve flow regimes and other stream conditions at a reach scale. SMPs are not regulatory, and participation is not required; therefore, community involvement and buy-in is necessary. SMPs are meant to be collaborative efforts; thus, goals in these plans are informed by stakeholder concerns and priorities. SMP efforts can be combined with consumptive water use planning efforts, thereby approaching water management and planning in a more integrated manner (for more information, visit this section of the Resource Library).

The practice of stream management planning is relatively new. However, a handful of communities have pioneered methodologies and completed plans. While there are often multiple reasons to embark on a planning effort, motivation can often be characterized as one of the following:

Anticipatory Plans

respond to anticipated changes in the system. Changes could include the construction of a planned reservoir or diversion, changes in water rights, preparation for climate change, and more. These anticipatory efforts often focus on understanding the risks associated with a range of future outcomes.

Reactionary Plans

begin in response to an event that highlights the ecosystem’s condition. For example, the City of Steamboat Springs initiated its plan in response to hot, dry years and low flows on the Yampa River. Not only were conditions dangerous for fish, but the City had to close the river to recreation to protect species. Because these planning efforts are motivated by a specific undesirable condition, they typically focus on characterizing the feasibility and effectiveness of solutions.

Exploratory Plans

are implemented in an opportunistic manner to take advantage of available funding or in response to enthusiastic stakeholders. Through these plans, communities typically conduct broad surveys of existing ecological conditions and/or community preferences for the delivery of goods and services from the river. Exploratory efforts don’t always proceed to the point where management actions are identified, in which case they may serve as more of a river health assessment that will inform future plans and projects.

Examples of SMPs exist in all of these categories, and all have value in moving towards protecting or enhancing river health and sustaining existing uses. Each plan takes a unique, individualized approach based on the catalyzing motivation for planning and the problems, challenges, and goals identified by stakeholders in the planning process.

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