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Riparian areas critical to well-being of trout streams (06/02/2004)
Webster defines "riparian" as: "Of, on or pertaining to the bank of a natural course of water."

That definition only begins to tell the story.

Riparian areas are the segment of the watershed with a direct impact on the plants, bugs, fish and other critters that live in aquatic habitats. "Where you have lousy riparian areas, you'll have lousy trout streams," said Eric Merten, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Specialist at Lake City.

"Prior to European settlement of the region, riparian vegetation was described as a mix of forests, prairie meadows, wetlands and everything in between," Merten noted. "Under these conditions, riparian areas provided shade, nutrient cycling, stream bank stability, etc. Those functions changed in a few decades when riparian areas were severely changed as native plant communities were removed and replaced by cropped and grazed land. Excessive flooding further damaged riparian areas."

For the last century, we have been working to repair riparian areas. Permanent vegetation as trees, grasses and forbs have been reestablished in some areas. Flooding has also diminished as watershed wide efforts that include more conservation farming, removing cattle from valley slopes, etc. have kept more of the water where it falls. A recent examination of streams in southeastern Minnesota determined that about 25-75% of sites (varied by areas of region) were poorly buffered, i.e. they had narrow and/or poorly vegetated riparian areas.

Is there still room for improvement? Merten answers that "Indeed there is." He also cautions that "although good riparian areas along streams can provide major benefits, degraded conditions in the rest of the watershed can overwhelm those benefits."

Merten pointed out the recent results from a nine-year study conducted by Agricultural Research Service scientists in Tifton, GA., and cooperators at the University of Georgia. The study showed that restored riparian wetland buffers retained or removed at least 60 percent of the nitrogen and 65 percent of the phosphorous that entered from an adjacent site where manure was applied.

"Previous studies have demonstrated good nitrogen retention but this is the first to demonstrate that the retention of phosphorous was as high or higher than nitrogen retention,: Merten said. "In addition to reducing soil erosion, buffers soak up water and nutrients from the soil. Buffers are such a simple concept but they work exceptionally well."

There are numerous other benefits provided by well managed riparian areas, Merten said. Following are a few examples:

" Deep rooted riparian vegetation stabilizes stream banks, slowing erosion and reducing sediment from entering the stream.

" Riparian vegetation filters nutrients and other chemicals, preventing them from entering or removing them from the stream.

" Riparian trees provide wood for streams which creates fish habitat, helps scour out pools, and creates stable structure for insects. Bigger trees provide bigger chunks of wood that provide better fish habitat and are less likely to be swept away during floods.

" Trees provide shade that helps keep streams cold, a necessity for trout. On small streams, grasses and shrubs help do the same thing.

" It is natural and inevitable for streams to meander and change course over time. Hardened structures like riprap, bridge abutments, and dams hamper this natural process while riparian areas with vegetation allow for it.

" Leaves falling or blowing into streams provide a source of energy and nourishment for insects, insects that in turn provide nourishment to trout, frogs and birds.

" Riparian buffers provide habitat for birds, voles, salamanders, rare plants, etc., and provide habitat corridors through the landscape.

Directing riparian landowners to the best available technical and financial assistance to more effectively manage those areas is a priority in the coldwater stream management plan recently adopted by the DNR and participating organizations and individuals in southeastern Minnesota.

"I don't know of anyone who wants to see the outstanding trout streams we have down here become degraded once again," Merten said. "It's just that some people simply aren't aware of the opportunities that are out there to help them."

For additional information on riparian management or assistance that is available, landowners can contact DNR Watershed Coordinator Larry Gates, Rochester, (507) 280-5065. 


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