It’s August and that means that it’s National Water Quality Month!
While we all know that clean drinking water is important and that clean bodies of water will help provide clean water for drinking – many are unaware how the plants along stream banks, in areas called riparian zones, or aquatic and wetland plants impact and improve water quality.
The Riparian Zone refers to a space of land that runs along rivers and streams that help to anchor the soil in place to prevent it from eroding away into the water. The riparian zone also provides valuable “edge” habitat to many animals that seek selter yet also want quick and easy access to water and their food that lives in the water.
Did you know that in Pennsylvania, sediment is the #1 thing that pollutes our waterways? As soil erodes from riparian zones that don’t have adequate plant and tree life with roots that act as claws, holding the soil in place, stream and river banks quickly sweep loose soil and sediment away and the water body widens. As the sediment falls into the water, it covers up macroinvertebrates that use gills to breathe, suffocating them. The sediment covers up and blocks out sunlight for aquatic plants, preventing them from growing and providing food and habitat. The sediment also prevents aquatic predators from seeing their food.
Without the plants in the riparian zone acting as a buffer, many plants and animals would die and the water would move slowly and nutrient cycling wouldn’t be able to happen as quickly – all of this decreases the overall water quality.
But how about marshes or wetlands that simply seem to hold water without having water flow through it in the form of a stream or river? Soil seems to sit and erosion isn’t as big of a concern since the water isn’t flowing quickly past, pulling soil grains along with the current.
In those areas, aquatic and native plants act as sponges, sucking up (sequestering) pollutants through their roots and storing it inside themselves. These plants act as natural filters. Without these plants, such as cattails, sedges, ferns, lily pads, wolffia, jewelweed, rushes, and reeds, toxins can find their way into the marsh through runoff, polluting the water and killing off the animals that live there. With the plants acting as a sponge, absorbing the pollutants, creatures such as fish, tadpoles, turtles, and aquatic insects (like dragonfly nymphs!) can live in clean, nutrient-filled water.
Help make your local water bodies cleaner by participating in Riparian Buffer plantings! Many local nature centers, watershed associations, or environmental groups rely on volunteers to keep the property healthy and thriving.