Written by the former City of San Antonio’s Nature Preserve Officer for the Medina River Natural Area, Peggy Darr.
What is a riparian area? A riparian area is the lush band of vegetation in the floodplain of a river. Riparian areas occur on both year-round rivers and seasonal creeks. They are one of the most important ecosystems in Texas. Unfortunately, they are also misunderstood and under-appreciated by many Texans.
A properly functioning riparian area provides a multitude of benefits for both humans and wildlife. Can you think of some benefits riparian areas provide? They provide a source of water for wildlife and people, provide abundant food for animals, serve as travel corridors for wildlife, and more!
Plants are the unsung heroes of riparian areas. They filter and purify water, leaving it cleaner for human and animal consumption. Their strong roots hold the soil in place, thus reducing erosion and sedimentation. Sedimentation, the movement of loose soil into the river, can kill fish and other aquatic life. Riparian plants shade the river, keeping the fish and other aquatic animals from overheating. They help to slow rushing floodwater, giving it time to soak into underground aquifers, and greatly reduce damage to human structures downstream. When the river floods, the soil held in place by plant roots acts like a sponge, soaking up water and then slowly releasing it back into the river. This means that even during times of extreme drought the river will not run dry!
The seasonal Salado Creek runs through Phil Hardberger Park. Flanking this creek is a relatively healthy riparian area. While it is almost always dry, its plants still act like a sponge during heavy storms. Flood events are not considered a good thing by most people. However, for a riparian area, flooding is healthy and absolutely essential. Rivers should flood at least once every three years.
Living plants are not the only things that help to slow floodwater. Have you noticed any dead trees lying in the creek bed? These trees help to slow rushing floodwater and provide homes for countless animals. Dead trees should not be removed from a river or creek!
BENEFITS: WATER, FOOD, CORRIDORS
The riparian area surrounding Salado Creek is home to a different plant community than the surrounding upland areas. Do you notice a difference? Because of the increased water availability, plants in riparian areas tend to be bigger and denser. Additionally, even in arid climates, water-loving plants thrive in riparian areas. Species such as Inland Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Western Soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii), and Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata) are found almost exclusively in the riparian area.
PLANTS: HEROES OF RIPARIAN AREAS
Unfortunately, humans unknowingly abuse and misuse riparian areas. They mow and manicure them so they are not “messy” looking; they allow too many cattle to graze at the river’s edge; and they cut down trees for a “better view” of the river. All of these actions reduce the functioning capacity of a riparian area and have resulted in riparian areas being an endangered habitat throughout Texas.
But there is hope! If abusive land management practices are eliminated, riparian areas have the capacity to recover on their own! How will you help conserve riparian areas? As you walk along the Salado Creek, take care to stay on designated trails. How do you think walking off-trail affects riparian plants? We owe it to ourselves and future generations of Texans to conserve the ecological treasure that is a riparian area.