March 24th, 2019

Riparian zones: the important land/water connection

By Sulz, Dave on March 8, 2019.

SUBMITTED BY THE OLDMAN

WATERSHED COUNCIL

Humans love to organize things in neat little packages: night and day, black and white, land and water – all dichotomies created to help us make sense of our world. In nature, however, the contrasts are not always so stark and many things exist in a less-defined grey area.

One such example can be found in what is called the riparian zone, the transition between land and water. Bordering rivers and other bodies of surface water, these special areas are vital to the health and quality of the water in our watershed.

A healthy riparian zone has a few key characteristics. The deep, dense root systems reinforce the stream banks and prevent erosion, kind of like a natural form of rebar. This allows the land to be more resilient to high-flow events like flash-floods and the spring melt. The permeable ground, rich soils, and vegetation function like a giant sponge, absorbing and regulating the flow of water, which mitigates flood and drought in our predominantly flat, dry landscape. Soil microbes, live vegetation, and decomposing plant materials naturally filter our water, trapping and removing sediment, pesticides, chemicals, and excess nutrients from runoff.

When riparian areas are healthy, they help keep our water clean, providing habitat for animals and insects. As an added bonus, the natural filtration reduces the need (and cost) for water treatment for all of us who access the water. As transition zones between land and water, riparian areas are a melting pot of the natural world.

The unique interaction between water, soil and plants provides resources and habitat for numerous species and plays a crucial role in the health of our ecosystem as a whole. These areas are also beautiful and teeming with life – you only need to take a walk in the river bottom to see for yourself!

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