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. SMPs are meant to be collaborative efforts; thus, goals in these plans are informed not only by sound science, but by stakeholder concerns and priorities.

Well-developed stream management plans should be grounded in the complex interplay of biology, hydrology, channel morphology, and alternative water use and management strategies. They should also consider the flow and other structural or management conditions needed to support both recreational uses and ecosystem function.

SMPs are not regulatory, and participation is not required; therefore, community involvement and buy-in is necessary. An inclusive stakeholder approach expedites cooperative and integrated project planning, which leads to successful implementation of measures that will meet the goals identified in the stream management plan.

Stream Management Plans Should:


Involve stakeholders to ensure their acceptance of the plan;


Assess existing biological, hydrological, and geomorphological conditions at a reach scale;


Identify flows and other physical conditions needed to support environmental and recreational water uses;


Incorporate environmental and recreational values and goals identified both locally and in a basin roundtable’s Basin Implementation Plan (BIP); and


Identify and prioritize alternative management actions to achieve measurable progress toward maintaining or improving flow regimes and other physical conditions.

For basin roundtables, local stakeholder groups, and decision makers, such plans can provide a framework for decision making and project implementation related to environmental and recreational water needs.

This table identifies common SMP goals and possible key questions. Using this assessment, stakeholders can identify and prioritize management actions to maintain or improve flow regimes and other stream conditions at a reach scale.

Necessary Steps for SMP Development:

Gather stakeholders to participate in plan development.

Identify the plan’s objectives.

Identify and prioritize ecological and recreational values.

Establish goals for flows and other physical conditions in order to protect or enhance environmental and recreational attributes on streams and rivers within a given watershed.

Collect and synthesize existing data describing flows for river ecosystems, boating, or other needs in the watershed.

Assess exist physical conditions of stream reaches, including geomorphological and riparian conditions.

Select quantitative measures that can be used to assess progress made toward articulated goals.

Determine what new information is needed and the best methods for obtaining that information.

Quantify specific numeric flow recommendations (or ranges of flow) and physical conditions and assessing the potential for channel reconfiguration to support environmental and recreational values.

Identify temporal, geographical, legal, or administrative constraints and opportunities that may limit or assist in the basin’s ability to meet environmental and recreational goals.

Implement a stakeholder-driven process to identify and prioritize environmental and recreational projects and methods. 

Stream management plans should provide data-driven recommendations that have a high probability of protecting or enhancing environmental and recreational values on streams and rivers.  More information on environmental and recreational projects and plans can be found in Chapter 6.6 and 7.1 of the Colorado Water Plan.

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 has occurred since 2015. More than 30 communities since 2022 have completed plans or have plans in progress, including several who have pioneered methodologies for river health assessments, stakeholder engagement, and project development and prioritization. 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.  You can learn more about different plans’ motivation in the Nuts and Bolts section of this site.

Colorado SMP Library