"Riparian" is taken from the Latin word ripa which means bank or shore. Riparian ecosystems are found alongside rivers, creeks, wetlands and any other water networks. They are the interface between water and land-based ecosystems, where components of both ecosystems can act and water-loving plants thrive in the water rich soils. Typically, riparian areas comprise less than 1% of the landmass across North America. These areas provide critical ecosystem services and are vital for both aquatic and terrestrial organisms. Natural disturbance along with fluvial processes are continually creating these dynamic and distinctive ecosystems that are crucial for biological habitat diversity. They are usually comprised of several structural layers with grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees along with dead standing trees. Because of this, riparian areas are arguably the biggest contributors to biodiversity on the landscape.
Ecosystem services provided by riparian areas include: soil conservation and bank stabilization; supply of course woody debris for stream channel stability; sediment filtering of run off which is critical in agricultural and urban areas; water storage and release; and aquifer recharge. Riparian areas also contribute to the scenic landscape and are aesthetically pleasing.
Riparian areas are threatened in a number of ways across the province. In the southern interior of BC, many low elevation valleys have waterways that are lined with the Black Cottonwood Plant Community. This is one of the rarest ecosystems in the province of British Columbia and because of this it is on the provincial red list, which is akin to being endangered. The loss and degradation of riparian areas is caused by a number of factors including dams and dyking, livestock grazing, urban and agricultural development, recreation, logging, invasive plants and grasses, and changes to the natural hydrological regime.
Animal Species Supported
Many wildlife species, both aquatic and terrestrial, depend on riparian areas for food, water, security, rest, travel, and reproduction. There are several birds that are considered threatened or endangered that can be found in riparian areas of southern BC, including: the yellow-breasted chat, western screech owl, and Lewis’s woodpecker. Amphibians and reptiles such as the tiger salamander and the western rattlesnake also depend on riparian areas for food and refuge. Large mammals, such as elk, deer, and bears, will use the security of cover found in riparian areas for travel. Aquatic organisms and fish also depend upon riparian areas. Riparian vegetation provides both cover and shade to help maintain water temperature which in turn maintains desired oxygen levels. Vegetation that creates organic litter—such as leaves, needles, branches, and lichens falling from overhanging riparian vegetation—decomposes and becomes a primary food source for aquatic invertebrates, which in turn feeds the aquatic food chain.
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