Healthy headwater stream.Insects, the Favorite Food of Trout are Abundant in Stream Reaches Cooled by Streamside Forests...

Water temperature, habitat structure, food availability and sediment flux are four important factors affecting the survival of trout (Salmonids) and other fish that are directly affected, to a large extent, by streamside forests.

In most small streams and rivers, the seasonal pattern of water temperature, the first of these factors, is determined largely by the extent that direct solar radiation and air temperature can modify the temperature of the water. In a give region, groundwater stays fairly constant in temperature throughout the year (± 1 degree C of mean annual air temperature for the region) and provides most of the baseflow for stream systems. Loss of shade from streamside forests can greatly warm streams, increasing a trout's demand for dissolved oxygen and , at the same time, reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen available in the water.

Headwater streams of first to third order comprise about 85% of the total length of running waters, and because of the ratio of stream bottom to shoreline, are most readily influenced by exposure to solar energy. Agricultural drainage systems which intercept cool groundwater and drain it to streams in unshaded ditches contribute significantly to the increase in stream temperature.

Graph showing weekly maximum temperature for the farm and forest stream.
Reference: G.F. Greene, 1950. Land Use and Trout Streams, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation


Graph showing shade effect on trout habitat.   Graph showing water temperature and salmonid production.
Reference: Raleigh, R.F.; Hickman, T.J.; Nelson, K.L; Maughan, O.E. 1980. Riverine habitat evaluation procedures for rainbow trout.    

Manipulation of the streamside forest canopy can be used to moderate and stabilize stream temperature to optimize the survivorship, growth, and reproductive needs of fish and aquatic macro-invertebrates and even benthic algae.

Habitat structure, the second factor affecting Salmonid survival, is enhanced by the addition of large woody debris to the stream channel which forms pools and important rearing areas. It also provides cover from predators and protection from high flows.

To understand the third factor, food availability, the natural stream must be viewed as a continuum from headwaters to mouth with a significant amount of the energy for aquatic life coming from organic material such as leaves, twigs, flowers, animals and insects originating from the streamside forest. These kinds of materials dominate the food base of small headwater streams flowing through forests. The food supports a diverse invertebrate community which in turn provides the principal food source for Salmonids in healthy ecosystems. Large amounts of leaf litter and other coarse organic matter enter small forested headwater streams and are rapidly consumed by aquatic invertebrates. These animals function as shredders because they reduce large pieces of organic debris to smaller pieces which in turn move downstream and can be used by other animals who feed by filtering or gathering these fine particles of food.

Mayfly nymphs.   Mayfly adult.
David Funk David Funk
  Orange arrow bullet point. Mayfly nymphs and Mayfly adults are both primary trout foods and important components of the         food web.

...Streamside Forests Control Habitat Damaging Sediments and Provide                        Organic Energy to Organic Energy to Downstream Reaches

As stream channels get wider in a downstream direction, the widening partition between the streamside forest canopies allows sufficient light to promote the growth of benthic algae, especially diatoms. Many species of invertebrates known collectively as "grazers" specialize in eating diatoms and, in turn, provide important food to fish. In large rivers that are very wide and deep, planktonic algae can become the dominant food resource with forest litter being less important. The downstream changes in channel size and shape and the organic food base along the river continuum greatly affect the fish population. For example, fish populations change from invertebrate eating Salmonid fishes, such as trout and salmon, in the headwaters to plankton feeding Cyprinids and Catostomids, such as carp and suckers, in large rivers.

Salmonid spawing beds.   Well developed root systems help stabilize stream banks.
Stephen J. Brady USDA Forest Service
Orange arrow bullet point. A well washed gravel stream bottom is necessary for Salmonid spawning beds.   Orange arrow bullet point. Well developed root systems help stabilize stream beds.


An example of a sediment laden branch entering a less turbid stream. John Dickerson USDA Soil Conservation Service
Orange arrow bullet point. An example of a sediment laden branch entering a less turbid stream.


Increased stream sediment concentrations.Streamside forests facilitate the downstream flow of food by contributing large stable debris to the streambed. This stable debris is the mechanism by which the detritus is held long enough to be processed by the invertebrate community. Without debris dams, much of the organic input from streamside vegetation would be washed downstream without contributing to the life processes of the aquatic food chain. Only as the streamside forest nears maturity is it able to produce organic debris in Incubating eggs.sufficient size and quantity to provide relatively stable detritus catchments.

The streamside forest helps to control sediment flux, the fourth factor affecting Salmonid survival, by stabilizing streambanks, Sediment concentrations must be very high, above 20,000 ppm, to cause mortality in adult fish by clogging the gill filaments and by preventing normal water circulation and aeration of the blood.

However, much lower concentrations can cause behavioral changes and disrupt normal reproduction by covering spawning grounds and preventing the emergence of recently hatched fry. Sediment covering spawning grounds A newly hatched Salmonid.reduces the flow of intragravel water, limiting oxygen availability to incubating eggs and newly hatched alevins and hindering removal of metabolic wastes. It similarly affects aquatic insect habitat, this altering species composition of a major trout food source. Large instream debris can help store sediment, moderating transport rates and buffering against rapid changes in sediment loads that could cover spawning gravels, fill rearing pools and reduce invertebrate populations.


A balanced, integrated, adaptive community of riparian and aquatic organisms comparable to the natural systems of the region with stability and capacity for self repair must be reestablished.

Establishment Guidelines

Simple removal of nonpoint pollutants is not enough to improve the quality of water resources. A balanced, integrated, adaptive community of riparian and aquatic organisms comparable to the natural systems of the region with stability and capacity for self repair must be reestablished. The restoration of a healthy aquatic ecosystems from the headwaters to the estuaries to the oceans requires the reestablishment of significant amounts of riparian forests.

Control of point source pollutants was a start; control of nonpoint pollutants and repair of the aquatic ecosysytem through reestablishment of the streamside forest is a logical next step in improving the quality of our water resources.

Riparian forest.

Specifications for such a streamside forest should consider the following:
  1. Streamside forests should be used in conjunction with sound land management systems that include nutrient management and sediment and erosion control.
  2. Sediment removal - The streamside forest must be wide enough to filter sediment from surface runoff. Maximal effectiveness depends on uniform shallow overland flow. Percent removal of Total Suspended Solids is a good indicator of effectiveness.
  3. Nutrient removal - Periodic flooding and the presence of forest litter contribute to conversion of nitrate to gaseous nitrogen by denitrification. Plant uptake also accounts for significant removal of nitrogen. Trees must be removed periodically to remove nutrient sequestered in woody biomass and to maintain system efficiency.
  4. Periodic minor ground shaping may be necessary to encourage dispersed flow and prevent concentrated flow.
  5. A portion of the riparian forest immediately adjacent to the stream should be managed to maintain a stable streamside ecosystem and to provide detritus and large stable debris to the stream.
  6. Crown cover should be managed to minimize fluctuations in stream temperatures within the range necessary for instream aquatic habitat.
  7. Instream slash and debris removal practices should be revised to conserve existing large stable debris by retaining useful stable portions of jams whenever possible. Unstable tops and smaller debris with potential to form problem jams should be removed a sufficient distance to prevent re-entry during storm events.
Riparian forest buffer.
The attached specification is an example of an effort by several state, federal and private resource management and research organizations to develop criteria for the establishment of effective forest buffers based on current research findings.

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