National Wetlands Inventory
Ecological Services

Riparian Product Summary

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is the principal Federal agency that provides information to the public on the extent and status of the Nation's wetlands. The National Wetlands Inventory has extensive mapping expertise and knowledge involving wetland identification and classification, image interpretation, and digital data capabilities. Reflecting this expertise, the NWI is regularly asked to provide resource mapping guidance, and with increasing frequency, is requested to map riparian areas of the western United States.

The goal of the National Wetlands Inventory is to provide the citizens of the United States and its Trust Territories with current geospatially referenced information on the status, extent, characteristics and functions of wetland, riparian, deepwater and related aquatic habitats in priority areas to promote the understanding and conservation of these resources.

With growing interest in riparian habitats in the western U.S., the Service undertook early riparian mapping projects for several agencies in Arizona in the early 1990s.  Additional projects were conducted for the National Park Service in Nevada, and the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming.  Each project included a variety of definitions, classifications, and mapping conventions.  The Service was regularly asked to map riparian areas in the western United States, but lacked a standard definition and conventions to guide the mapping.

In 1997, the National Wetlands Inventory made a commitment to assemble a committee of habitat and cartographic specialists to develop the Service’s riparian definition and mapping conventions. In 2000, western Service Regions began implementation of the system.

Though riparian digital map data can stand alone, it is recommended that this data be used in conjunction with the associated Cowardin wetlands data. This will provide a “complete picture” of the ecological systems that have been mapped.

Since riparian data collection is a product of more recent times, a large percentage of the data is available digitally, though some of the early riparian mapping efforts are still hardcopy-only.


Digital riparian data can be viewed using the Wetlands Mapper. Riparian data is also available for download for the continental United States in Geodatabase or Shapefile format.


Metadata is described as ‘data about data’. A quilt work of information about the data exists due to the complexity and geographic variation of riparian areas, the decades of data collection and the size of the geographic coverage. ‘Metadata’ for the riparian areas dataset is currently captured at two levels. Those levels are described below.

The U.S. Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) describes (geospatial) metadata as follows:

"A metadata record is a file of information, usually presented as an XML document, which captures the basic characteristics of a data or information resource. It represents the who, what, when, where, why and how of the resource. A geospatial metadata record includes core library catalog elements such as Title, Abstract, and Publication Data; geographic elements such as Geographic Extent and Projection Information; and database elements such as Attribute Label Definitions and Attribute Domain Values."

The standard FGDC metadata for the riparian areas layer and other layers served on the Wetlands Mapper can be found on the Metadata web page.

Riparian areas mapping is conducted in defined geographic areas called projects. Imagery is used as the base information to define the type and location of each riparian area. The scale, type and date of imagery used in a project is provided in a pop-up window when a riparian polygon is selected on the Wetlands Mapper. Investigators that complete a riparian mapping project record information on the source imagery, collateral data, inventory method, data limitations, geographic features, landforms, riparian area types and other specifics in a project metadata document. This project level metadata can be found by selecting a riparian polygon on the Wetlands Mapper and then clicking on the link next to ‘Project Metadata’ in the pop-up window. Note: Not all areas have a Project Metadata document.

Last updated: May 10, 2017