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A riparian zone is an area around a stream or another watercourse which has distinctive vegetation and other characteristics which separate it from the land beyond the riparian zone. Riparian zones contribute a number of important things to the natural environment, with many conservation groups promoting the maintenance and restoration of riparian zones for the benefit of the environment in their regions. Homeowners who live along riverbanks and streams are also encouraged to establish healthy riparian zones, 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 width of a riparian zone 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. You may hear a riparian zone referred to as a riparian forest, riparian buffer, or riparian habitat, depending on regional word use.
Spotting a riparian zone is usually very easy, as a healthy riparian zone appears as a ribbon of green along the banks of the river. It often hosts an assortment of trees along with other plants which like moist environments, and in a healthy environment, the plants will be extremely diverse. The environment of the riparian zone is also friendly for an assortment of wildlife like birds, butterflies, bees, and so forth, and sometimes larger animals will make their homes in a riparian zone as well.
A number of important functions are performed by riparian zones. One of the most important is erosion control; riparian zones 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 which enters the water, and they snag sediment, ensuring that the sediment 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 offered by the riparian zone. The habitat offered by the riparian zone is also important, especially for species which are being pressured by human populations.