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Have you hiked along the river at Medina River Natural Area? If so, you were walking in a riparian area, 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. 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 keeps the river flowing, even during times of extreme drought!

Living plants are not the only things that help to slow floodwater. Dead trees in the river also help to slow the water. In addition, dead trees also stabilize the river channel and provide homes for countless animals. Dead trees should not be removed from a river or creek!

Riparian areas are usually home to different plant communities than the surrounding upland areas. 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.

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 while enjoying a natural area park? As you hike, take care to stay on designated trails. Walking off-trail kills important plants! We owe it to ourselves and future generations of Texans to conserve the ecological treasure that is a riparian area!

Written by Peggy Darr, previous Nature Preserve Officer for Medina River Natural Area.