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What is a Riparian Zone?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A riparian zone is an area around a stream or another watercourse that has distinctive vegetation and other characteristics that separate it from the land beyond it. These zones contribute a number of important things to the natural environment, with many conservation groups promote the maintenance and restoration of them for the benefit of the environment in their regions. Homeowners who live along riverbanks and streams are also encouraged to establish healthy land around the water, which will look attractive in addition to raising property values and benefiting the environment.

The word “riparian” comes from the Latin ripa, which means “bank,” referencing the fact that the riparian zone begins at the banks of the river. The area's width varies, depending on prevailing conditions in the region and the amount of human interference which has occurred, and the zone can include wetlands as well as solid ground. This zone is sometimes referred to as a riparian forest, riparian buffer, or riparian habitat, depending on regional word use.

Spotting this area is usually very easy, as a healthy one appears as a ribbon of green along the banks of the river. It often hosts an assortment of trees along with other plants that like moist environments, and in a healthy waterway, the plants will be extremely diverse. The environment is also friendly for an assortment of wildlife, like birds, butterflies, and bees, and larger animals will sometimes make their homes there as well.

A number of important functions are performed by these zones. One of the most important is erosion control; they prevent erosion, with native plants sending deep roots into the soil to keep it from crumbling and washing away. The plants also act as pollutant traps, reducing the amount of runoff that enters the water, and they snag sediment, ensuring that it isn't washed out to sea.

Having a well-stocked riparian zone also helps to control the ambient temperature, keeping temperatures moderate around the water instead of allowing radical fluctuations. Many native species rely on relatively stable temperatures, because this is what they have evolved to live with, so they appreciate the temperature regulation. The habitat is also important, especially for species that are being pressured by human populations.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Dec 03, 2014

@irontoenail - Re-populating the waters with the right kind of animals can be important too. I watched a documentary a while ago where they were investigating the impact of salmon extinction in several riparian ecosystems. Usually the salmon would make their way up the streams to lay eggs and then would die there.

The researchers left salmon carcasses in some streams and not in others and discovered that it made a massive difference in the amount of growth and diversity in the area, because the salmon provided nutrients that weren't otherwise available.

It just shows how a single component of the riparian zone can be more important than you might expect.

By irontoenail — On Dec 03, 2014

@pastanaga - You've also got to make sure you work out what to plant on bare banks. You can't just leave them alone or put whatever you want there. A riparian ecosystem is usually fairly specific to the area and to the creatures that live there.

If you plant willows in the wrong place, for example, they will end up causing floods because their leaves will block waterways. If you plant the wrong kinds of trees in an area with beavers they won't grow back fast enough for the beavers to co-exist without destroying the local ecosystem. It's all about balance and knowledge.

By pastanaga — On Dec 02, 2014

The kinds of plants and trees that are planted along a river or stream are so important. I know that our region is trying to improve this at the moment. There is a lot of farmland here and most of the streams, of course, go directly to the ocean. The farmers think that a stream is basically just a free water source for their cattle, so they don't plant anything there and allow the cows to have free access to it.

But massive amounts of manure end up going downstream and cause algae blooms in the ocean which choke all the fish. Even if you aren't interested in conservation, this is ruining the fishing and shellfish industry.

If all the farmers fenced off their waterways and provided water to their cattle in other ways the problem would be fixed very quickly. Riparian restoration isn't that difficult because the areas are generally very fertile, but you've got to provide incentives for whoever owns the land.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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