Friday, November 13, 2015

A River Ran Through It

Way up in the mountains of Allegheny National Forest in northern Pennsylvania, you can dip your toe into a creek with no name. In minutes, the molecules of water sliding by your skin will be part of the Otter Branch. In hours, they’ll gain membership to Minister Creek.

Over the course of the following day, those same molecules will sing the battle hymn of the Allegheny River and then march alongside billions of their brethren as part of the Ohio River.

Eventually, the droplets from the no-name-creek will rage along the banks of the Mississippi and oxygenate the gills of a thresher shark in the Gulf of Mexico.

Water connects us—from fields and streams to mountains and beaches, and back again. Water molecules never lose their life-sustaining importance, but during their journey, they meander in and out of various levels of federal, state, tribal, and local protection.

That is why a team of scientists wants to create the first-ever riparian conservation network—a nationwide system of protected creeks, streams, and rivers the likes of which the world has never seen.

Riparian zones consist of rivers, floodplains, and wetlands, and Alexander Fremier, a Washington State University ecologist, thinks having these lush corridors connect protected lands to each other would be a bonanza for the environment. In a new paper outlining the idea in Biological Conservation, he and his co-authors explain how these links could improve water quality and help combat habitat loss and fragmentation.

Allowing more trees and shrubs to grow along banks staves off erosion, and banning livestock from grazing around rivers and streams could reduce sedimentation and nitrification (what happens when they, um, overfertilize a body of water). Less industrial pollution might also head downstream if there were tighter restrictions on mining and manufacturing near rivers.

Riparian corridors don’t just facilitate the flow of water from one region to the next; they also act as highways for wildlife. In one study of predators in California wine country, scientists found that coyotes and other small carnivores prefer to travel through forests, but when no trees are in sight, they take to the riverbanks. The research showed that waterways not only are important for the usual suspects of fish, ducks, muskrats, and the like, but are crucial routes for just about any animal looking to avoid humans and other dangers (think roads) on their journey.

OK, you may be thinking, this is all great, but connecting protected river corridors across the United States sounds like a daunting, if not impossible, undertaking—one that would require the cooperation of millions of private landowners and hundreds of federal, state, tribal, and local agencies. And you’d be right. But according to Fremier, this liquid network kind of, sort of exists already.

by Jason Bittel, Pacific Standard |  Read more:
Image: Ralph Tiner/USFWS