The Importance of Riparian Zones

To manage riparian health, one first must understand what you are managing. Riparian zones, sometimes referred to as ‘green zones‘, are critical areas for stewardship in the agricultural landscape. They are a transition between aquatic areas (streams, lakes, wetlands, etc.) and the terrestrial (upland) zones. They typically flood on a regular basis, or have persistently high water tables. And this means they have features that reflect their part-aquatic, part-terrestrial nature.

The ecological importance of the green zone cannot be overstated. Riparian areas are highly productive. And they support vegetation and other life that thrives because of the abundant water, nutrients and organic matter that accumulates.

Riparian zones are rich with biodiversity. They support habitat for wildlife and are also important for travel corridors and connecting habitats.

Combined with wetlands, the riparian zone also helps to filter and clean water. They also trap sediment and prevent erosion. In doing so, they can build streambanks and reverse old damage. Water flows are slowed, allowing ground water reserves to recharge. A healthy green zone acts like a ‘sponge‘, soaking up excess water and slowly releasing it. Almost magically, this both reduces flooding and also droughts.

Riparian Health and Agriculture

Good soils and abundant water also make riparian zones attractive agricultural settings. And farming and ranching can happily co-exist with healthy riparian areas. But when mismanaged, degraded or altered to extremes, they cease to function properly. And impaired riparian health can lead to many adverse outcomes. These include increased erosion, degraded water quality, and impacts on species at risk, among others. Poor riparian health can also have direct negative consequences for agriculture. It can lead to lower productivity for crops, elevate the risk of flooding on farmland or contribute to seasonal drought.

Restoring and maintaining riparian health has clear benefits for both agriculture and the environment

Assessing Riparian Health

In the next post in this series I go through the importance of assessing riparian health. I also provide some resources agricultural producers can use to measure and monitor their management of the riparian zone.

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