The Ecology and Conservation of Riparian Areas

In many ways, riparian buffers define our paddling experiences. Likewise, they define the river ecosystem and how rivers interact with the landscape. In many parts of the country the word “buffers” instantly strikes fear into those concerned with private property rights and any potential limitations on those rights. Riparian buffers may be political hot potatoes but there are some very good reasons why paddlers should support the protection and restoration of riparian areas. It is important to remember that buffers are not a political statement, they are an ecological necessity.

Riparian areas are simply the land adjacent to rivers and streams. These areas typically foster vegetation that is specifically adapted to living in the dynamic conditions associated with living next to a river. Thus, these species are adapted to being regularly flooded, scoured, fragmented, buried, dried up, washed downstream and otherwise abused. In order to survive, many of these plants have developed deep fibrous root masses that both hold the vegetation in place and also hold the stream-banks in place. It is primarily because this characteristic of riparian vegetation, that maintaining riparian buffers is so important. This vegetation with its deep binding root masses both protects the river from things happening on land, and protects the land from the erosive forces of the river. The following is just a subset of the ways in which maintaining riparian buffers enhances the paddling experience, the river ecosystem, and the relationship between rivers and people.

  • Increases aesthetics by maintaining a natural viewshed from the river.
  • Reduces sedimentation and stream bank erosion that is responsible for muddying the water, damaging property, and reducing the amount of aquatic habitat available.
  • Filters pollution and runoff that would otherwise go directly into the river.
  • Slows run-off and reduces flooding.
  • Offers critical habitat to terrestrial and aquatic species.
  • Drives the aquatic food chain by supplying leaves and nutrients to the river.
  • Provides shade that maintains naturally cool water temperatures.

When buffers are removed through timber harvest practices, landscaping, urban development, agricultural clearing, over grazing, or by any other means, these many benefits to paddlers and rivers are lost. Without a healthy riparian buffer, our rivers become muddy ditches, lifeless and dysfunctional. The intricate ecological web of the river unravels, and will not be restored until the riparian vegetation itself is restored. This is exactly why there is so much interest in riparian restoration and protecting riparian buffers.

As you are out there driving around, paddling, and best of all - flying, take notice of the state of our rivers' riparian areas. You will notice that many whitewater rivers have boulder and bedrock banks and may have a fairly intact riparian area, while lower gradient rivers that have soil and gravel banks and extensive floodplains are more likely to be heavily impacted. This pattern of development is fairly common because floodplains are flat and therefore easier to build on, graze on, and plant agricultural products on than upland slopes. Much of the work that needs to be done on riparian areas is in these lower gradient stream reaches, but do not think that you are off the hook since you are primarily a whitewater paddler. Rivers are continuums. Almost all whitewater rivers have low gradient reaches upstream and downstream of them in need of help, and many of the whitewater sections themselves have small areas in need of help.

So What Can You Do?

Hopefully, if you did not already, you now realize that riparian buffers are critical for the health of the rivers we enjoy. Surely then you are asking yourself, “OK that is all well and good, but what the heck can I do about it!?” Well, don't despair, there are a few really simple things that every paddler can do to help protect and restore riparian areas.

  • Start at home! If you own land on a river or stream, even if it is a tiny creek, make sure that you have native woody vegetation planted along the stream banks. Yard grass does not count and rip rap is probably worse! Yard grass offers virtually no ecological benefits to a riparian area and rip rap stops a river's natural processes dead. Some common riparian shrubs and trees are willows, alders, red-osier dogwoods, and cottonwoods but do your homework on what is native and appropriate. Encourage your friends to do the same.
  • Don't Be a Cow! Boaters, anglers, and hikers can have impacts to riparian areas similar to cows (trampling and killing the vegetation). When you are walking to or from the river, scouting, or portaging, stay on established trails and avoid damaging vegetation or dislodging loose soil and rocks. When possible, walk on rocks rather than soil/vegetated areas.
  • Don't Be a Beaver! Avoid removing strainers from streams whenever possible. Learn more about the ecology and practice of removing trees from streams in Chapter 5.3 of this toolkit.
  • Be a Tattletale! If you are out paddling and see unusual amounts of sedimentation or direct and significant erosion occurring, call your state agency in charge of water pollution control and report what you saw. These agencies are generally overworked and have little time to spend in the field. They often appreciate the public acting as watchdogs.
  • Step up! Support organizations actively protecting and restoring riparian areas. Whether your position in life is such that you can write a check to such an organization or can spend a day volunteering to plant shrubs at a restoration site, step up and get involved. Local watershed organizations are often the best first contact for how to get involved. Riparian restoration is very accessible, hands on, and worthwhile activity that can be lots of fun.
  • Be Politically Active! Remember this always: Rivers cannot vote. We must speak for rivers, and we must vote for rivers. Everyone from your local county commissioners to the President of the United States regularly make decisions that affect our rivers. So write those letters to the editor, support those watershed initiatives, and cast those river-votes.

Riparian areas are beautiful and integral parts of ecosystems and are embarrassingly easy to protect and restore, once the decision is made to do so. We encourage paddlers to take advantage of this great opportunity to have a positive influence on rivers.

Additional Information on Riparian Buffers

  • The US Dept of Agriculture has published a great book on how to design buffers that is available online as a PDF.
  • The North American Native Fishes Association maintains an excellent website with articles on the various values of riparian areas with pictures and hotlinks to relevant scientific journal articles. The website features the values of riparian areas to Streams, Fish, Insects, Animals, and of course People.
  • The Massachusetts Government Riverways programs maintains some good online fact sheets regarding the Functions and Values of Riparian Areas.
  • RiverLink has published an excellent journal on buffers and riparian zones along river corridors in PDF format. Rational, Strategies and Resources for Restoring and Protection Streamside Corridors. This resource provides case studies of riparian area conservation initiatives.
  • The National Resource Conservation Service Buffer Page allows the public to research various buffer related topics including funding opportunities.
  • For researching specific riparian area topics in the scientific literature we highly recommend this Searchable Riparian Bibliography.
  • If you really want to dig deep into riparian area ecology and protection you may want to check out this In Depth Book on the topic from the National Academies Press.
Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!