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The River Habitat
By GreenWorks Assistant Producer, Dave Beste

t is not uncommon to be walking near a river and see a fish swimming among the reeds or notice songbirds singing on a nearby tree, but what does often go unrecognized is the fragile nature of the river habitat. Several species of birds, fish, amphibians, insects, and mammals use rivers as their home, which is why it is not only important to keep the rivers healthy, but to understand how they have protected themselves for millions of years.

ne of the most important ways the river filters out potential pollutants is through riparian forest buffers. A riparian forest is simply the area of land next to the river that maintains the transition from land to the body of water. They exist not solely near rivers, but also creeks, streams, and any other water source imaginable. It is these floodplain areas that often produce the vegetation needed to help sustain the river and the life that depends on it. The primary function of the riparian forest is to act as a buffer and prohibit the often ill-effects of agriculture and urban development from harming the river. Because of the diverse area that the riparian forest encompasses it is able to support a much larger and more diverse population than other habitats.

all grasses on the riverbank are useful in trapping runoff pollutants and a strong root system in a shoreline forest can prove to be instrumental in preventing erosion. It is not infrequent for these habitats to be destroyed by unknowing homeowners manicuring their lawns or simply runoff pollution. Through a process called "denitrification" the roots of trees can take up pollutants and prevent them from ever reaching the river, as well as, processing the harmful nitrates into harmless nitrogen gas.

hese often unnoticed actions along the water's edge are necessary in providing a healthy habitat for those who live in the river. The tall grass and trees provide a habitat where many species can find shade from an unreasonably hot day and are useful in maintaining a cooler water temperature. The riparian forest also provides food for those predators looking for a meal, whether it is insects or plant life.

he riparian forest offers many diverse habitats to many species of animals. It is home to migratory birds, herons, eagles, turtles, otters, ducks, and numerous others. Not to mention the several types of migratory fish, which use the banks of rivers for hiding and feeding along their journey.

slands along rivers also provide a welcoming home for many birds and wildlife. Existing as a more isolated and self-contained world the species that live here often need a more undisturbed environment. As an example, Wade Island in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania exists as the only place in the state where one can find the Great Egret. In an area surrounded by islands the Great Egret has made only Wade Island it's home. It is constantly being threatened, however, by proposals to raise the water level at a nearby dam. Even a minimal change in depth could drastically change the habitat and balance that the island has created.

major disruption to the river habitat over the years has been the creation of dams, levees, and other man-made buildings that block the proper flow of the river and keep several species of fish from reaching their desired spawning grounds. These structures blocking the waterway have helped cause a severe decline in certain fish populations, such as the American shad, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

he combination of riparian forests, bay grasses, wetlands, islands, and numerous other habitats have helped to provide healthy rivers across the nation. But these same rivers have also had to withstand constant polluting and abuse.

s a result the Army Corps of Engineers and hundreds of watershed and environmental organizations across the nation have begun restoration activities to combat the effects of river habitat interference and work to realize the natural conditions of the river. Due to a change over the years in public values there has been less demand for dams and other river altering structures and new solutions are being considered "like relocation and land acquisition." (American Rivers). A new public sentiment of conservation has led to changes in policy and heightened awareness as to the importance of our rivers.

References and Links:
EPA Office of Water
GreenWorks Rough Terrain- Wade Island
The Chesapeake Bay Program
Kenai River Habitat Protection and Streambank Restoration
American Rivers
Riparian Forest Buffers
Three Rivers Habitat Partnership

See past topics of In the Flow here!

Contact Producer of Watersheds.tv,
Kelly Meinhart.


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