It may sound like some kind of prehistoric creature, but riparian refers to the strips of green vegetation alongside streams, creeks, rivers, lakes, sloughs and other bodies of water. Riparian areas are found across Alberta: in northern boreal forest, parkland, foothills, mountains and prairie grasslands. Although riparian areas make up a small percentage of the landscape, they are definitely a big deal. Riparian areas have far reaching benefits to water, land, livestock, wildlife and humans.
Healthy riparian areas act as filters to keep sediment and pollutants from entering the water, resulting in clean water for livestock and humans and quality habitat for fish. Healthy riparian areas will produce forage on a stable basis, which helps reduce the impacts of drought and acts as a buffer system during floods.
Riparian areas are good for land too, acting as a sponge to collect and slowly release needed moisture over the landscape. Vegetation in riparian areas helps prevent soil erosion on the banks of water bodies. Plant root systems reduce erosion and stabilize shorelines, and create an abundance of forage and shelter for livestock and wildlife.
Riparian areas are frequently part of the rangelands that livestock in Alberta graze upon. Rangeland is land that supports vegetation for animal grazing and is managed as a natural ecosystem. In Alberta, it is estimated that rangelands provide forage to about 14 per cent of the Alberta beef cattle herd.
- Did you know that there are about 8 million acres of grazing land in Alberta?
- The first domestic livestock arrived in Alberta with the fur trade and eventually ranching became established by the 1870’s.
- A cow eats about 12 kg of forage a day (measured as dry material) and requires 40 to 60 litres of water to digest that forage.
Maintaining the balance
An unhealthy riparian area may show the following symptoms:
- Slumped shorelines
- Absence of vegetation and wildlife
- Murky looking water with sediment buildup
These are indicators that the health of the landscape is not being maintained in a balanced way.
It is important to balance the health of the land, vegetation and water with grazing needs. Today, grazing is viewed as a natural process and tool for perpetuating rangeland ecosystems to be managed along with other factors like fire, disturbance, and human activity.
The Grazing Lease Stewardship Code of Practice has helpful information:
What can you do?
When it comes to grazing especially, there are several range management practices that can help protect natural landscapes and riparian areas.
- Don’t overgraze – this means leaving enough carryover vegetation to protect soil, conserve moisture and trap sediment;
- Distributing livestock evenly – not allowing livestock to linger and overuse an area;
- Rotational grazing – this means using several pastures for grazing, one of which is grazed while the others are rested before re-grazing;
- Planning for periods of rest on the landscape to assist in restoring and maintaining a healthy riparian area;
- Avoiding or minimizing grazing the area during fragile or vulnerable periods – for example, in late summer / early autumn grasses have dried out, while plants within the riparian zone are still green and looking mighty tasty to cows… making them vulnerable to overuse.
Cows and Fish is a non-profit organization that educates Albertans on the proper management of riparian areas. Looking for a more hands on experience? You can set up a workshop, presentation and/or training opportunity with Cows and Fish.
Off highway vehicles (OHVs), including quads, trikes and off-road motorcycles can also cause significant lasting damage to the landscape. Keep 100 m away from water in a Public Land Use Zone, or 30 m anywhere else. Keep OHV wheels out of streams, rivers and lakes by using established stream crossing bridges instead.
Don’t rip up riparian areas – keep the green zone healthy for long-term benefits!