A riparian zone consists of a waterway, the surrounding or bordering land and the habitats that are supported by the waterway and land. A creek, forest riparian zone would include a stream or river, for example, and will have a definite shape or boundary. The water table will continue underground for a distance. The grasses, trees, plants and shrubs that get water from the underground water table are also part of the riparian zone.
Riparian forest land management is critical in the semi arid lands of the world, and the most stringent study and attention has been given in the western United States. Semi arid means that six to eight months can go by before any rainfall occurs. Water has to be honored and respected out west, because, even with long periods of drought, water can also kill and destroy through flash flooding and flooding that comes from rapid snow melting. Out west, highly destructive industrial, timber, agricultural, dam construction and mining operations taught lessons that will never be forgotten.
In the forest riparian zone, the mountain snow is the source of water that may end its journey in a lake or go all the way to the sea. The surrounding dirt needs to be held in place and protected by plant and tree cover, which prevents it from eroding and washing down into the waterway.
The aquatic plants and algae that live in the forest waterways need to have certain clarity and oxygen levels. Aquatic plants thrive on light. If soil erosion makes the water cloudy, then the aquatic plants cannot thrive or start a proper balance of oxygen and nutrients to support other life forms.
Forest aquatic animals and insects need oxygen. When agricultural runoff like animal dung or excess fertilizer introduces nitrates to the water, the aquatic plants will grow out of control and choke off the oxygen.
When timber cutting, road building, naturally occurring landslides or fires will remove the protective plant canopy and allow the rain to beat down and erode the soil. The dirt will easily wash down to the lowest point, which has commonly been dug out by a stream, lake, pond, creek or river.
The life forms of the forest drink and feed from the water. Carnivores need to be able to find fish, frogs and clean water that is free of cloudiness or toxins. Dumping oil, brush, garbage or dead animals causes pollution. Garbage and dead animals can release e-coli and other disease into the water. This means that, when disease or e-coli levels are unsafe, recreational forest waterway use and fishing has to be terminated until the water is safe again.
Dumping or spilling gas or oil will poison the water with chemicals that can damage the health and reproductive ability of generations of animals and birds.
Dumping or placing rocks, dirt or brush can clog the waterway, disturbing the natural flow of water in ways that disrupt established aquatic and non aquatic life. This is why it is impossible to get new dams built in the Western states. One dam will threaten thousands of miles of riparian and non riparian land.
Any activity that disturbs the floor of the waterway will disrupt egg laying and nesting grounds, sending ripples through the entire food chain. When placer gold miners in California’s forests began to extensively use motorized suction and vacuum dredging equipment to extract gold bearing soil from the waterways, the damage to the environment grew to alarming proportions. The vacuum equipment was banned, but the battle still goes on between surface gold miners and those who are concerned about the impact to the the forest riparian zones of the state. The problem was that the salmon and other fish populations are easily jeopardized by any operations that disturb egg laying grounds and tear up habitats.
In summary, look to the west to find that naturalists, environmentalists, and industries like ranching, farming, fishing and even timber management can be ferocious conservationists when it comes to forest riparian zones.