Stream classification provides a means to understand the diversity and distribution of channels and floodplains that occur across a landscape while identifying links between geomorphic form and process. Accordingly, stream classification is frequently employed as a watershed planning, management, and restoration tool. At the same time, there has been intense debate and criticism of particular frameworks, on the grounds that these frameworks classify stream reaches based largely on their physical form, rather than direct measurements of their component hydrogeomorphic processes. Despite this debate surrounding stream classifications, and their ongoing use in watershed management, direct comparisons of channel classification frameworks are rare. Here we implement four stream classification frameworks and explore the degree to which each make inferences about hydrogeomorphic process from channel form within the Middle Fork John Day Basin, a watershed of high conservation interest within the Columbia River Basin, U.S.A. We compare the results of the River Styles Framework, Natural Channel Classification, Rosgen Classification System, and a channel form-based statistical classification at 33 field-monitored sites. We found that the four frameworks consistently classified reach types into similar groups based on each reach or segment’s dominant hydrogeomorphic elements. Where classified channel types diverged, differences could be attributed to the (a) spatial scale of input data used, (b) the requisite metrics and their order in completing a framework’s decision tree and/or, (c) whether the framework attempts to classify current or historic channel form. Divergence in framework agreement was also observed at reaches where channel planform was decoupled from valley setting. Overall, the relative agreement between frameworks indicates that criticism of individual classifications for their use of form in grouping stream channels may be overstated. These form-based criticisms may also ignore the geomorphic tenet that channel form reflects formative hydrogeomorphic processes across a given landscape.
Jensen, Martha, "The Blurred Line Between Form and Process: A Comparison of Stream Channel Classification Frameworks" (2016). Watershed Sciences Faculty Publications. Paper 877.