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What is a Riparian Zone?

Homeowners who live near streams should keep the land healthy.
The riparian zone is the area around a waterway.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2014
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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.

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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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