The Riparian Zone and Its Elements

Riparian Buffer Zones and Buffer Strips

Based on the experiences of environmental management and landscape planning in several countries, the riparian zone (river corridor) can be divided into several parts depending on topography, soil conditions, the width of the natural flood plain area, natural vegetation zones, etc.

In an ideal (undisturbed natural) case, the structure of riparian zones and strips can be coherent with the complexity of natural river corridors.

In addition to this complexity, there is an important part in riparian systems called the hyporheic zone, which is defined as a subsurface volume ofsediment and porous space adjacent to a stream through which stream water readily exchanges. Although the hyporheic zone is physically defined by the hydrology of a stream and its surrounding environment, it has a strong influence on stream ecology, stream biogeochemical cycling, and stream water temperatures (Figure 1). Hyporheic zones play several important ecological roles in a river, because they are ecotones. The interactions between the surface water and groundwater make them areas of great biological and chemical activity. Thus the hyporheic zone is an important component of stream ecosystems.

For the point of view of watershed and landscape management, the riparian zone can be divided into two major functional parts - the riparian buffer zone and the riparian buffer strip. The first is wider (50-1500 m) and has less strict management prescriptions, whereas the buffer strips are narrow areas at the riverbanks and lakeshores with very limited management opportunities. The width depends on the land-use intensity of adjacent territories (i.e., the potential pollution load), and on the use and importance of the water resource. For agricultural areas, the preferable land-use alternative is a perennial grassland with a combination of a forest or bush buffer strip directly on the riverbank or lakeshore. There are, however, several combinations of natural and seminatural vegetation recommended for complex buffers strips in Europe (Figure 2). In the USA, a complex three-part buffer zone is recommended for agricultural watersheds in the majority of states (from the upland toward the stream): (1) grassland filter strip, (2) managed (young) forest strip, and (3) mature forest strip (Figure 3).

Several riparian elements (buffer strips on banks, artificial horseshoe wetlands receiving water from drainage pipes, fragments of floodplain forests) are involved in the building-block model for river restoration.

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