You stand at the bank of a quaint little stream. You are alone, but you are among God’s Creation. You are indeed not alone. You assess your natural sanctuary. The stream meanders past your feet as natural waterways do. The stream is splashed with slow-moving pools and rapid riffles, each providing diverse aquatic habitat. The precious soil along the stream bank is held fast by tightly-knit vegetation. Vegetation extends into the floodplain, completing this protective and functional riparian border. You look upstream along a bluff, noticing the gnarled exposed root systems of trees, so efficiently hugging the precarious edge. You return your attention to the water flowing serenely before you. You delve into the clear water and wade towards a rock covered in leaves. Autumnal remnants litter the embankments, pools, and exposed objects along the stream. You startle a few minnows and a crayfish as you pick up and examine a handful of leaves, nutritious detritus for aquatic life. They are slimey, partially decomposed, and teeming with fascinating little organisms. The leaves are from the Sycamores, Green Ash, and Sassafras that thrive in the surrounding forest. Trees successfully envelope the stream’s banks and protect these waters from excessive heat and negative ecological complications. You look above and witness this natural sun screen, an overarching canopy of limbs and leaves. You also notice unfamiliar birds fluttering about the trees. A host of bird species sing singular tunes, a pleasantly different chorus than that of the neighborhood robins, jays, and cardinals. They continue to scamper among the branches while you wade back to shore and continue downstream.
About half a mile downstream, you reach the outskirts of a suburban neighborhood. You can see the edge of freshly manicured, pesticide-ridden lawns and cookie cutter McMansions obnoxiously intruding into the flood plain (you know, where flooding occurs). The houses sore-thumbingly stick out as inefficient structures in an otherwise self-sufficient natural area. The forest on one side of the stream is denuded to accommodate vistas of the “water feature” you stand in. Real estate prices reflect this beautiful view, but not the cost of inevitable stream degradation. You immediately notice evidence of erosion along the riparian zoneless stream bank. The lingering vegetation is not enough to paste the soil to the land. The shallow root systems of the newly planted turfgrass are almost ecologically and hydrologically useless. A recent rain and subsequent run-off of soil, trash, and chemicals has rendered the stream opaque. In the dirty, polluted current you spot few fish or macroinvertebrates. Detritus is limited as is leaf-producing vegetation. Exposed rocks now collect non-native Bradford Pear leaves and cigarette butts. You recall the exhaustive list of toxins and chemical ingredients found in cigarettes. You hear no song birds, but instead endure the twittering of starlings, cowbirds and grackles. A lone jay is calling from its tree at a curious cat nearby, the neighborhood terror once let outside. The stream has been ignored, mutilated, and made secondary to this important economic progress. Something is not right here. You ponder the consequences of such human interference and the benefits of restoring that natural corridor of life. After all, water brings life. Water conservation strengthens life.
More attention should be given to dihydrogen monoxide. Water. Life. Riparian zones play a key role in water quality and quantity.
Particularly, I draw attention to riparian zones. A riparian zone is the vegetative area along the banks of waterways. The flora is versatile and quite able to withstand severe droughts and flash floods. Native vegetation especially thrives here, as water availability and other climate factors inhibit less hardy contenders.
Proper, undisturbed riparian zones provide numerous environmental and economic benefits.
If not constricted, clear-cut, or otherwise disturbed, these plant barriers provide necessary levels of shade to waterways and their inhabitants. The benefits of shade are numerous, but not limited to contained algal blooms, proper dissolved oxygen levels, and water temperature controls. Even the abundant amount of autumnal leaves resting in a stream pool or slimed against a rock in the current have purpose. With clean water, biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems is maintained. The nutrients are used. Nothing is wasted. These many factors play-out up the food chain from macroinvertebrates to fish and birds. Would you eat the fish from the waters upstream or downstream of my fictitious suburb?
What else is notable is the tolerable nature of riparian area plants. During normal and dry periods, the extensive root systems of riparian flora uptake and store water. This helps other vegetation to survive and brings moisture into the creek bed. Macroinvertebrates can hide in this moisture layer. Adversely, during times of flood, the same root systems hold the plants in place;their very presence retards flash floods and lessens impending major flood events.
Riparian zones are corridors of life. You can do something about this. Maintain a proper barrier along waterways, or allow the vegetation to restore that boundary. With the rejuvenation of conservation efforts of water comes the betterment of all it touches. After all, water is to nature what blood is to our bodies—a requirement.