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Now here’s something we can all agree on: Water is precious … especially in northwest Colorado and the rest of the arid West. And here’s something you may not know: Healthy riparian areas keep water on the land longer to the benefit of wildlife and people.
Riparian areas are the “green lines” of vegetation found along creeks and rivers. By definition, the riparian zone is the land adjacent to a waterway that is characterized by plant communities adapted to moist soil conditions, relatively shallow water tables and, in some systems, periodic flooding. And while riparian areas technically do not include the aquatic habitat within the waterway itself, the two systems are inextricably linked to one another — the health and vigor of one depending upon the other. In northwest Colorado riparian areas make up less than 1 percent of the landscape, but their importance to both people and wildlife go far beyond their abundance.
Properly functioning riparian areas provide a variety of benefits:
• They reduce sediment transport down the stream and trap much of that sediment that does enter the system. This means increased water quality and water clarity — important for vibrant fisheries and clean drinking water.
• They provide diverse wildlife habitat, from waterfowl and songbirds to big game animals. The forage and cover resources provided by native riparian plant communities attracts a diversity of wildlife. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of all vertebrate species in the region use riparian areas for at least some part of their life history.
• They provide economic benefits to landowners and can increase property value. While we all know that stream-side and floodplain areas provide abundant forage for domestic livestock, these same areas also create value by attracting big game wildlife and waterfowl. What’s more, functioning riparian systems are aesthetically pleasing which translates into higher property values for landowners.
Water is maintained on the land longer in healthy riparian areas because the natural plant communities and physical structure of these systems promote groundwater recharge, absorb energy associated with high water flows, and slow the overall downstream movement of each drop of water. This means higher water tables in adjacent areas and recharge of springs and seeps. The two most detrimental things to a healthy riparian area are soil compaction and vegetation loss. Both of these lead to decreased water infiltration and increased sedimentation. In addition, degraded stream systems often become down-cut, channelized, and straightened — leading to lowered water tables, narrower riparian zones, and accelerated movement of water downstream and off the land.
For those landowners interested in restoring the health of riparian or wetland systems on their property, there are local resources available. Both the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Natural Resources Conservation Service (each with offices in Meeker) have programs specifically designed for work on private lands. These voluntary programs can provide landowners with stream and riparian health assessments, technical assistance in project planning and design and, importantly, financial assistance with project implementation. For more information, contact Brian Holmes with the Colorado Division of Wildlife at 878-6063, or Tiffany Harvey with the NRCS at 878-5628, ext. 102.