Riverbanks don’t get much press. They’re pretty, so you see pictures of them all the time, but typically the river itself is the focus of the picture with the banks just there to frame the shot.
Whether you fish, raft, watch wildlife, like to look at “pretty stuff” or work in an industry that helps others to do those things, you likely recognize that the river is critical to the community and plays a prominent role in defining who we are.
I would argue that it is the riverbanks, or “riparian areas,” that are the work horse in the relationship. The fish depend upon the shade created by the riparian plants, as well as the habitat and food created by fallen trees and plants. Floating wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without lush streambanks to look at as you go by. The wildlife wouldn’t visit much anymore and the tourists would also find another place to direct their attention.
Perhaps it is time to talk about the important, but oft-forgotten, riparian areas. This is especially pertinent now that we can celebrate the recent and permanent protection of 7,300 linear feet of Eagle River between Wolcott and Eagle thanks to the county’s acquisition of more than 400 acres of the Horn Ranch.
First, let’s define them: A riparian area is the land running along a stream or river which is influenced by the adjacent water. It is easiest to identify a riparian area by the plants — usually cottonwoods, willows, alders, dogwoods, chokecherry, and blue spruce. When driving in flat open country, like eastern Colorado, you can typically spot where a river is from miles away even if you can’t see water, because of the meandering line of cottonwoods — that is a clear example of a riparian area.
According to the Colorado Chapter of the Wildlife Society, riparian areas comprise a mere 3 percent of all land in our dry state. Such scarcity makes this ecosystem all the more important. With that statistic in mind, it is fascinating to hear from Colorado Parks and Wildlife that of the approximately 1,000 known species of wildlife in the state, more than 500 of them use or live in the riparian areas for at least a portion of the year. And in Eagle County, at least 250 species use our riparian areas. “Uses” can include migrating, foraging, breeding, birthing and rearing of young. For example, deer and elk usually have their young within 400 feet of flowing water.
With every impact to riparian areas, we can expect to see an impact on our wildlife populations. This can also define our community and are a huge boon to the economy.
The importance of the riparian area extends far beyond wildlife, recreation and beauty though. Like I said earlier, riparian areas work really hard — playing a huge role in increasing water quality.
All of that dense vegetation slows the flow of runoff (whether from snowmelt or rain events), allowing the ground to absorb and filter sediment and pollutants, thus resulting in cleaner water entering our rivers and streams. It also helps to reduce flooding and maintain stream flow during drier times in the year by slowing runoff and allowing it to infiltrate soils and recharge the groundwater supply.
Additionally, the strong, deep root systems of riparian plants help to stabilize banks, lessening erosion and sedimentation caused by the constant shearing forces of water and ice.
Riparian areas, although hard-working and resilient, can also be easily damaged by heavy human use. There are things we can do to protect them so that they can continue to provide us with beautiful views, healthy wildlife and great water quality. First, when accessing rivers do so at designated areas rather than bushwhacking. Next, support efforts to protect these lands and come out and help the Eagle River Watershed Council on one of our restoration projects. And finally, those lucky enough to live along the banks of our rivers and streams need to recognize the special job the plants along the bank are doing and help in keeping them intact.