Many of us are lucky enough to have streams or other bodies of water on our properties. These waterways are assets to the landowner for varying reasons; they are aesthetically pleasing, a resource used for agriculture, a fishing hole, and the list goes on.
Restoring or managing the riparian zone on your property with stream health in mind will only enhance this asset. The riparian zone is the area adjacent to a stream that is the transition zone between land and water.
Stream health is directly connected to the condition of the riparian area. The benefits to streams with mature riparian vegetation are numerous. The shade provided by full-grown trees stabilizes stream temperatures. Without shaded streams water temperature will increase dramatically in summer months, causing a decrease in dissolved oxygen that can negatively impact fish and macroinvertebrate populations.
Leaves shed from these neighboring trees provide a crucial link in the stream food chain, as they are the food source for many macroinvertebrates (crayfish, mayfly, stonefly, etc.)
The roots of streamside vegetation hold soils in place and reduce erosion. During flood events, riparian vegetation slows floodwaters, protecting downstream properties. These roots also slow rainwater down and allow it to recharge groundwater.
We’ve all seen streambanks with erosion issues. One example in Yellow Creek has unstable sections of streambank along the mainstem that erode more each year, and will eventually cause damage to nearby areas.
The primary land use is agriculture. The field adjacent to the stream is planted in rotation with corn and soybeans, and it is planted almost within a few feet of the streambank.
The landowner in this case is losing property by not being proactive. In this case it may be more complicated because the erosion has caused an undesirable slope, but if addressed in a timely manner, quite often the re-establishment of streambank vegetation could be as simple as placing willow cuttings directly into the ground.
As mentioned, root systems from vegetation will decrease erosion, preventing land from being washed downstream. Had there been a properly maintained and vegetated buffer zone, this scenario could have been avoided entirely.
How can you help?
The majority of land in the watersheds in eastern Ohio is privately owned. This makes landowner stewardship key to the health of our streams. Commonplace actions around the home can impact the health of adjacent waterways.
Landowners can maintain their property and protect their backyard stream by not over-fertilizing their lawn or crops; minimizing or avoiding pesticide and herbicide use; creating or maintaining naturally vegetated stream buffers (don’t mow or plant to the edge); and choosing native plants when landscaping.
Soil and Water Conservation Districts can assist landowners in their endeavors to restore riparian vegetation and stabilize stream banks by providing a list of native species, assisting with design of riparian plantings, or working with landowners to have easements placed on the river corridor through their property.
If you live along a waterway, no matter what the size, consider the importance of the backyard stream you have the privilege to care for. With little effort you can restore or maintain a healthy buffer to an aquatic system that will not only benefit the environment, but landowners downstream as well.
Remember, we all live downstream.