Riparian Zones In Danger!

When Mark Twain ducked school to spend his lazy afternoons on a Mississippi riverbank, he may have thought his surroundings eternal. In the 1840s, how could anyone have dreamed otherwise, gazing along endless miles of gently babbling river?

One hundred-sixty years later, neither Twain nor Huck Finn would believe how things have changed. A human onslaught has brought our riverbanks some heavy losses. Today, the riverbank--or to give it its broader, scientific and more modern name, the riparian zone--is an environment under threat.

What Exactly Is A Riparian Zone?

More than just a riverbank, the riparian zone is a strip of land running adjacent to a body of water, and holding its course like a bun holds a hot dog. The transition between water and land creates a semi-aquatic environment that is far greater in ecological importance than its narrow width would suggest. Here are some reasons why:

* Vegetation growing within the riparian zone plays a key role in keeping stream water safe. Vegetation acts like an outdoor, Brita filter, removing pesticides and fertilizers from surface runoff.

* Wildlife relies more heavily on riparian zones than on any other habitat. A lush riparian environment will attract all forms of wildlife seeking water, shelter and food. Then, like a meandering, soggy, toll-free interstate, the riparian zone provides a migration route along interconnecting rivers throughout the nation.

* The riverbank and vegetation form a fender against the passing river, deflecting and diffusing its power, protecting surrounding land from erosion. By reducing the speed at which water flows, the riparian zone encourages absorption and replenishes underground water reserves, assisting irrigation.

What Threatens Riparian Zones?

Human beings are threatening the number and distribution of riparian zones in a variety of ways. Consider how many cities and towns are built over or near riparian zones because of the benefits of developing next to waterways. Riparian zones are affected adversely by farming, resource extraction, road construction and myriad other symptoms of human-environment interaction.

Sometimes our actions lead to unexpected repercussions. Take cattle grazing, a seemingly harmless activity and part of a healthy, organic farm policy. Unmanaged cattle are spoiled with dining choices, favoring lush riparian grass ahead of inland meadows. Throw in algae-promoting cattle manure and dozens of trampling hooves, and the fragile riparian zone becomes a pancake made of mush. Good cattle management will help preserve riparian areas of farmland.

Flaws in land and cattle management are not the greatest problem though.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site[1], pollution is the greatest threat facing riparian zones and the waterways they serve to protect. Not far from my home in Ohio, the EPA recently prevented a commercial greenhouse from dumping contaminated runoff water directly into the local river system. Angela Roles, a visiting lecturer at the Environmental Sciences Department of nearby OberlinCollege, told me how local riparian wildlife suffered as a result:

“We found two or less crayfish in all our test samples, when normally we would find 30 to 40. Crayfish are sensitive to changes in their environment--they are an EPA indicator species. Excessive nutrients from pollution were wiping them out.”

By forcing the offending company to filter harmful pollutants from its runoff, the EPA acted decisively, but it faces a harder task of preventing riparian contamination when the source of the problem is less obvious. Non-point source pollution, as it is known, has no single point of origin and can come from a variety of different human activities, commercial and domestic.

Because of its diffuse nature, the EPA is struggling to prevent non-point source pollution harming the riparian zones. We must all do our part--if you want to help, please follow the EPA’s suggestions listed in the sidebar accompanying this article.

What Can We Do To Protect Riparian Zones?

Aside from the EPA’s recommendations, we might ask what our local authority is doing to provide education and incentives for landowners to participate in riparian management programs, and if we are willing to support our elected officials if they do not. Employees of organizations that own riparian land can help by assessing how well their organization’s management policies embrace ecological incentives.

In an ideal world, riparian management policies will be enshrined in a voluntarily agreed but nonetheless legally binding covenant made between landowners and their local authority. A conservation covenant--otherwise known as a conservation easement--will help to ensure perpetuity of good practice should land title change ownership.

Unfortunately, too often human need takes priority over conservation--urban and economic expansion in the Southwest has sealed the fate of many riparian zones along the Colorado River, for example. Yet should our need give state authorities the license to take without putting back? When water is diverted or drained, and natural riparian zones are destroyed, can they not be replaced at some point--or in the case of water diversion, created from scratch--under the direction of a green economic policy?

How Do We Rebuild A Riparian Zone?

We must remember that lost riparian zones can be found again. Certainly, it takes time for vegetation and wildlife to recover, but with sufficient willpower (a.k.a. pressure from angry citizens), it is not inconceivable for state authorities to find the time and resources to make riparian recovery a reality.

As long ago as 1997, the Iowa State University (ISU) Department of Forestry laid out a ground plan for creating and maintaining a riparian zone--or in its words, a buffer strip--from scratch. Convinced of the necessity to rebuild buffer strips in the Midwest because of losses to agriculture and urban development, ISU’s research showed riparian recovery is possible through good planning and commitment to long-term maintenance[2].

ISU’s work relied upon several sources of public and charitable funding. Today, there is still no concerted federal effort to fund definitive research into the protection and regeneration of riparian zones. We have many useful resources, but still questions remain unanswered or not fully explained: How rapidly are riparian zones diminishing? How is our economic dependence upon land and water harming riparian zones? Which species’ survival wholly or partially depends upon riparian zone survival?

To preserve our riparian zones and riverbanks for future Mark Twains, we must act together by pressuring authorities for greener policies, and by doing our part to reduce domestic and commercial pollution. As Twain said of the aqueous environment, “Water is an individual, an animal, and is alive.” It’s up to us to keep it that way.

Jamie Gletherow is a freelance writer, outdoor enthusiast, native Londoner and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at