Riparian Zone = Property Protection
Providence Canyon, Lumpkin, Georgia
Sometimes, I can be really astounded by the extent to which individuals can fail to imagine consequences.
Think back, if you will, to a time in your youth when you might have floated a leaf, a stick or a "boat" down a gutter after a rainstorm (or a creek, if you were lucky). It was amazing how quickly things moved, wasn't it? Sometimes you'd have to run to keep up. Sometimes running wasn't enough, and you'd lose sight of your ship, as it were.
Water is a powerful thing.
Locally, we typically experience about 80 inches of rainfall a year. Lately, we've had our share of "extreme" events where scattered storms drop six or seven inches within 24 hours. And because we are in a more mountainous zone, almost nobody's property is flat. Lack of flatness leads to accelerated water, which leads to slope "slippage" and loss of soil, which ends up in creeks and then in our rivers. Sometimes along with trees.
Currently, Transylvania County is facing a very large log jam in the French Broad River. Based on the paragraph above, I bet you can guess how those former trees ended up in the river. The river, now being obstructed by logs, is busily chewing into its banks to try to find an easier way of getting around the log jam. Individuals who have cleared their land all the way to the edge of the river are losing property in a hurry. Those with riparian zones are losing it more slowly. Roots equal soil-grabbing-mesh and defense against flash floods.
Many communities set ordinances that require "stream buffers" or similar terminology. These planted buffers are insurance against mother nature at her worst. They act as natural filters to ensure clean water for public use. They also provide benefits to fish and other aquatic life and even songbirds. Some property owners, however, can't imagine that leaving vegetation along the banks of a waterway is necessary. They view this requirement as government thievery of their property. They simply can't imagine that these rules are anything but interference with their "rights" to use their property any way that they wish.
This mindset is not new. As a race, we've been assuming we can control nature for centuries. Our handling of water resources has reshaped ecosystems, states and even continents. Rarely have we not achieved our water-rerouting goals in large-scale projects. [See the entry on the Aral Sea of former Soviet Russia, below.] What we are beginning to see on a global scale, however, is the inadequacy of these systems to compete with newly aggressive drought or rain events that give us far greater extremes of our usual diet of precipitation. Individual landowners are not immune to these same onslaughts.
One tree down....
One of the more dramatic examples of landowners not anticipating the end result of removing a bit of snag at the edge of a field is a state park in Georgia by the name of Providence Canyon. Given that most of Georgia is pretty flat, anything called "canyon" probably gives you an idea of What Went Wrong. Essentially, in an 1800's farming community with soft soils, farmers took none of the soil erosion prevention measures that we now consider to be good practice. Rainfall alone did the rest, first forming small gullies and washes and then growing into a massive scale in which groundwater became part of the problem as well. It is a stunning state park, with a great deal of geologic record on display for all to see. I highly recommend it!
Such an event could not take place in Transylvania County, since the clay soils here are far more resistant to the easy erosion of the Georgia Coastal Plain. But increased silting of the French Broad and the Davidson Rivers makes it clear that we do not have sufficient riparian zone in place to completely protect our water resources. Looked at another way, it is obvious that some landowners are losing their land to our rivers.
Healthy riparian zones can absorb more water than unhealthy ones, making riverbank areas more resistant to flooding. Without even knowing what types of plants are there, you'll know a healthy riparian area by its diversity of plants and wildlife, its more vertical banks, the brushy grasses and shrubs at its edges and the clear lack of exposed soils.
Developed and agricultural areas that reach all the way to the river's edge are just asking to have their soils transported to another location. It's what rivers do--move.
As communities, we pass legislation that requires riparian zones in order to protect the water resources we all make use of, regardless of whose property that water migrates through on its way to our taps. We require new development to filter stormwater off of parking lots before the water reaches community streams because such filtering is necessary to maintaining clean water resources. Zoning which requires developers to leave some land for the river bank essentially acknowledges that water resources are too important to not protect. Some more enlightened communities even consider the wildlife benefits of these zones because of members' desires to kayak, fish or add to their avian life lists.
These types of "regulation" or rules are there to protect us from ourselves. Our waters will always carry away what isn't rooted into place.