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A Guide to Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) Delineation for Non-Perennial Streams in the Western Mountains, Valleys, and Coast Region of the United States

Matthew K. Mersel, Robert W. Lichvar | August 14th, 2014

Federal regulations define the ordinary high water mark (OHWM) as “that line on the shore established by the fluctuations of water and indicated by physical characteristics such as a clear, natural line impressed on the bank, shelving, changes in the character of soil, destruction of terrestrial vegetation, the presence of litter and debris, or other appropriate means that consider the characteristics of the surrounding areas” (U.S. Congress 1986). Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), the OHWM defines the lateral extent of federal jurisdiction in non-tidal waters of the United States (WoUS) in the absence of adjacent wetlands (U.S. Congress 1977). Thus, accurate and consistent OHWM delineation practices are essential for proper implementation of the CWA.

The dynamic nature of stream systems and fluvial processes presents challenges for OHWM delineation. Natural sources of variability in river and stream systems (e.g., climate, sediment supply, landscape position, etc.) are compounded by direct and indirect anthropogenic sources of variability (e.g., watershed alteration, dam emplacement and removal, climate change, etc.). Thus, it is challenging to impose a consistent measure of “ordinary” high flow conditions across systems in which the hydrology and geomorphology can vary greatly in both space and time.

OHWM delineation in non-perennial (i.e., intermittent and ephemeral) streams can be especially challenging. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) defines intermittent streams as having “flowing water during certain times of the year, when groundwater provides water for stream flow. During dry periods, intermittent streams may not have flowing water. Runoff from rainfall is a supplemental source of water for stream flow” (USACE 2012). Ephemeral streams have “flowing water only during, and for a short duration after, precipitation events in a typical year. Ephemeral stream beds are located above the water table year-round. Groundwater is not a source of water for the stream,” and “[r]unoff from rainfall is the primary source of water for stream flow” (USACE 2012). In contrast to both intermittent and ephemeral streams, perennial streams have “flowing water year-round during a typical year. The water table is located above the stream bed for most of the year,” and “[g]roundwater is the primary source of water for stream flow” (USACE 2012).

Given the less persistent streamflow regimes characteristic of non- perennial streams, particularly ephemeral systems, the characterization of ordinary high water flows is perhaps more challenging than in perennially flowing systems. Moreover, depending on climate, vegetation, and other related factors, the appearance of some OHWM indicators may vary greatly between wet and dry seasons or between relatively infrequent flow events, more so than in many perennial streams. Mountainous terrain can present additional challenges to OHWM delineation. For instance, the relatively steep and confined valleys in which mountain streams commonly flow can restrict the development of some alluvial features (e.g., flood-plains, bankfull benches, etc.) that are typical of low-gradient systems and that may help to identify the OHWM. Thus, in non-perennial mountain streams, it is often difficult to determine what constitutes ordinary high water and to interpret the physical and biological indicators established and maintained by ordinary high water flows.

Challenges and inconsistencies pertaining to OHWM delineation practices are becoming increasingly relevant in mountainous parts of the western U.S. in light of expanding development. This increased pressure on fluvial systems highlights the need for accurate, consistent, and repeatable OHWM delineation practices in this region. These factors, combined with the particular challenges of OHWM delineation in non-perennial mountain streams, provided the impetus for developing this delineation guide.

This guide presents the concepts, field indicators, and methods for assessing, delineating, and documenting the OHWM in non-perennial streams in the Western Mountains, Valleys, and Coast (WMVC) Region of the United States (Figure 1). The information presented here is based on the findings of Mersel et al. (2014) (discussed in Section 1.5) and on years of field observations and data gathering in the WMVC Region and in other regions of the U.S. by the authors and other contributing experts. The remainder of Section 1 provides background information regarding the concept of the OHWM and pertaining to stream hydrology and geomorphology in general. Section 2 discusses and provides examples of the specific field indicators used to identify the OHWM in non-perennial streams in the WMVC Region. Section 3 discusses field methods for delineating the OHWM and addresses additional techniques and lines of evidence that may help in problematic delineation scenarios.

The information presented here is technical guidance and does not define, amend, or replace any existing regulations, laws, or legal guidance related to the OHWM or to the regulation of WoUS. Furthermore, determining whether any stream is a jurisdictional WoUS is beyond the scope of this document and involves further assessment in accordance with regulations, case law, and clarifying guidance. This guide pertains to non-perennial streams in the WMVC Region of the U.S., and while the information presented here may have a wider applicability to other regions or to perennial rivers within the WMVC Region, this has not been tested or validated. This manual serves as a companion to A Field Guide to the Identification of the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) in the Arid West Region of the Western United States (Lichvar and McColley 2008) as these two regions—the WMVC and the Arid West—are interspersed with one another. Best professional judgment is required to determine which manual is most appropriate for any given location within these two regions.

The technical guidance presented here aims to provide an informed and consistent approach to OHWM delineation within the WMVC Region; however, OHWM delineation is not a precise practice. The OHWM can take on a variety of appearances and characteristics and may change over time due to natural or anthropogenic causes. Best professional judgment and consideration of the unique characteristics of each project site are always required.


flood management, flows, planning and management, streams, water quality