Riparian areas are one of the most important and biodiverse habitat types, supporting a wide diversity of wildlife and performing important ecological functions. Riparian areas are transition zones between terrestrial upland and aquatic ecosystems. They occur along waterbodies such as streams, lakes, rivers and wetlands. Riparian vegetation includes moisture-loving sedges, rushes, shrubs, grasses and forbs. For example, willows, a type of shrub, are commonly found in Alberta riparian lands.
Ecological Benefits of Riparian Areas
Riparian areas are one of the most productive ecosystem types, supporting diverse flora and fauna including fish, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and plant communities. This support for wildlife includes providing critical sheltering, rearing, feeding, and reproduction habitats for many species, some of which are not found anywhere else on the landscape.
Besides providing habitats, riparian areas also provide many ecological services.
Riparian vegetation slows the flow of water, which allows water to seep into the soil, replenishing groundwater reserves in the spring.
In drier periods, groundwater seeps back into streams to maintain streamflow.
When streamflow slows, suspended sediments are deposited on streambanks and floodplains, and build up banks and create narrow, deep stream channels and fertile floodplains.
Riparian vegetation acts as a filter for any sediments and chemical pollutants in run-off. This is important, as excess nutrients going into waterbodies can result in algae blooms, depleting dissolved oxygen in water and leading to high fish mortality.
Healthy, well-functioning riparian lands are more resilient to environmental stresses and natural or human disturbances. Healthy riparian lands do not have many weeds, since weeds colonize areas where disturbance has created bare soil. One sign of healthy riparian lands and ecological stability is the presence of woody plants in varied age classes.
Economic and Social Benefits of Riparian Areas
In addition to ecological benefits, riparian areas provide direct and indirect benefits to humans.
Healthy riparian areas regulate base stream flows, ensuring a consistent and reliable supply of water for human use including irrigation.
This regulation also slows floodwaters, reducing flood risk.
Water filtration performed by riparian vegetation reduces the cost of water treatment, provides clean water for livestock and irrigation, and allows for safe recreational fishing and swimming.
Riparian areas and shallow streams also serve as spawning areas for fish species resulting in stable fish populations. Healthy fish populations not only support healthy ecosystems, but also support recreational and commercial fishing industries.
Riparian areas have provided benefits for humans in both the present and past as shown by the historic, archaeological and cultural sites (e.g. Indigenous sites) found on riparian lands.
How You Can Help
How can you help maintain our riparian areas?
When you are hiking or walking in natural areas, tread lightly in riparian areas.
Do not ride Off-Highway Vehicles in riparian areas, as they can damage this sensitive habitat.
If you own land with riparian areas, take steps to maintain the health of these ecosystems.
For example, maintain a buffer of vegetation from crops or hay, and provide off site watering for livestock.
For more information about managing your riparian areas to avoid soil compaction and vegetation trampling, contact Cows and Fish.
If you’d like to conserve your land and riparian areas in perpetuity, contact EALT.
Support conservation and restoration of riparian areas by donating to the Edmonton and Area Land Trust.
You can learn more about riparian areas from our Riparian Areas Factsheet.