Protect Our Water
Why is the enhancement and protection of our watershed important to me?
The natural features that are present in our watershed provide services for us. We all know that clean water is important to us; in fact humans can't live without it! What you may not be aware of are the other functions that a healthy watershed supplies for us.
Wetlands filter runoff water from cities and fields and remove sediment. Natural curvy stream banks slow down water as it races at high water helping to control flash flooding. And natural, un-compacted soils absorb water slowly after it rains helping to control erosion and flooding, and helping to filter the water before it reaches ponds, lakes, and rivers.
A healthy watershed provides all these services to us for free, but when we disturb the natural systems that are at work for us, we have to pay to have the same services performed. Instead of the healthy un-compacted soils absorbing and filtering water to help clean it, we must pay more for water treatment. Instead of natural curvy streambanks slowing down rushing, raging, high waters, we pay the costs of flash flood damage. Instead of wetlands absorbing sediment and runoff from cities and fields those sediments end up choking streams and lakes resulting in maintenance costs.
Protecting a healthy well-functioning watershed saves us all money in the long run. We aren't the only ones who count on healthy watershed features either; all life, plants, birds, fish, and others all depend on healthy watersheds for life.
What is a "riparian buffer zone," and why is it important?
The riparian zone is the area of land directly adjacent to a waterway (streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, wetlands). When we speak of a "riparian buffer zone" it just means that the riparian area has been left in natural vegetation. A healthy riparian zone with lots of vegetation plays an integral role in protecting water quality and ecological integrity and diversity.
Important functions of the riparian zone include:
- The stabilization of watershed slopes and streambanks. The roots of trees and plants hold streambank soil in place so that ground is not lost to erosion.
- The filtration of pollutants. Plants in the riparian area absorb and hold pollutants before they can reach water.
- The maintenance of proper water temperature within the stream or river. Trees and plants hanging over the water shade it and help keep it cool all summer. (This is critical to fish life- many fish can't live with even a rise in temperature of a few degrees.)
- The buffering of the waterway from degradation present in the rest of the watershed. The vegetation in the riparian area traps sediment and other pollutants from the watershed before they can reach the water.
- The supplementation of nutrients. As leaves and insects fall into the water they provide food for animals living in the stream.
- Habitat and food for wildlife. Many birds (Great Blue Herons, King Fishers, Eagles, Osprey, etc.) and other animals rely on vegetation including trees and shrubs along the water for homes and resting places.
- The provision of a "transitional zone" from bank to Flood Plain to watershed slope This is critical for flood mitigation, it allows flood water a place to stop, slow down, and soak in.
Did you know sediment is a leading pollutant to Pennsylvania's water resources?
Believe it or not soil that has eroded and been washed into the water is a chief cause of pollution in the waters of Pennsylvania. This soil is carried along with the water and when the water slows down the soil drops out of the water. This sediment then clogs the bottoms of creeks, rivers, ponds, and streams making it impossible for insects and fish to live there.
Why is dirt harmful to streams?
Soil that is permitted to runoff into a stream from disturbed areas (including runoff that finds its way through storm sewers) chokes the stream. The high sediment loads affect the ability of fish to breath. The sediment also covers the bottom of streams filing the cracks and crevices where the fish live and lay their eggs. The sediment that settles at the bottom of the stream also prevents the growth of aquatic insects that are food for fish. This sediment also often carries chemicals and other harmful substances that have been applied to the land, so once that sediment ends up in a stream or other body of water the chemicals attached to the sediment are there too!
What are the main causes of sediment ending up in Pennsylvania's waters?
- Stream Bank Erosion
- Construction, mining, logging
What can I do?
First and foremost, start to look at our surface water as the invaluable resource that it is. Do not take clean and abundant water for granted. Each and every day, think about how YOU can, as part of you everyday life, act in ways that promote healthy and clean watersheds. Secondly, GET INVOLVED. Join CPC today!
What kind of an economic impact do clean streams have on an area?
The fishing and aquatic sports industry is a multi-million dollar industry in Pennsylvania. Across the country, this figure increases to hundreds of millions of dollars. This is not possible without protection of the streams and maintenance of the riparian zones around streams. From tackle shops to boat sales, our healthy waters provide economic development value, in addition to quality of life. Just add up the money that was made from just the sale of boats alone. Needless to say maintaining clean streams and the riparian zones necessary to protect the streams provides an economic return many times over.
Is there any reason to leave downed trees and debris in streams?
YES! Downed trees and natural debris should be left in streams for at least two reasons. First, the trees and debris provide refuge areas for aquatic organisms, many stream dwellers hang onto downed trees (This is especially important during high flow conditions in the stream) and some even use the algae that grow on downed trees as a source of food. Second, the trees help slow down the flow of water in the stream; thereby, preventing further erosion and more fallen trees.
Why are wetlands adjacent to streams so important?
Many reasons exist for maintaining wetlands along streams. A few are:
- The wetlands help filter pollutants and sediment from the surface water before it enters the streams.
- The wetlands help to slow the rate of water entering a stream after a rain storm. This helps to prevent erosion in the stream and it helps to prevent flooding along the stream.
- It is excellent habitat for organisms that depend on the stream for water and the habitat provided by the wetland provides a safe haven for the animals.
- It is also a great place to bird watch or just take in nature!
Can't flooding be addressed by straightening and deepening streams?
No, this is inaccurate. We know that streamside vegetation acts to absorb rainwater, which is then slowly released from the vegetation to streams over long periods of time. Removing the vegetation from a stream's riparian zone and replacing the natural curvy stream with a deep, narrow channel results in a higher intensity of water runoff over a shorter period of time. This has the effect of raising both the velocity and the height of any flooding that may occur. The result of removing riparian vegetation and channelizing a stream is actually a more destructive flood. So you see, channelizing streams to build a shopping center or a housing development adds to our flooding problems by creating more intense floods with increased property damage.
Is only the vegetation along streams important to protect?
No. It is true that protection of streamside vegetation is critical to protecting streams. However, destruction of any vegetation in a watershed and replacement of the natural areas with impervious surfaces such as concrete parking lots and rooftops creates significant and ongoing problems. The impervious areas impair the ability of the watershed to absorb and hold rainwater. This magnifies the normal stream flow patterns, resulting in more intense floods, and also in reduced stream flow during dry periods. So all the streams within a watershed are impacted by changes in other areas of that watershed.
Is there information available for individuals or groups who want to restore eroding stream banks and riparian zones?
Yes, there is information available for any group or individual who is interested in restoring Pennsylvania’s streams. Contact your County Conservation District Watershed Specialist. Additionally, join CPC and volunteer for stream clean-ups, water harvesting workshops and other efforts to protect our critical resource – water.