Why a creek is never just a creek

September 16, 2014, 1 p.m.
butte creek

A riparian habitat is the lifeline for more wildlife than you can shake a stick at

The next time you head down to a creek to enjoy the sound of traveling water and the smell of damp rocks and leaves, know that you are not alone. Not by a long shot. Several hundred, if not thousands of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, plants and fungi all depend on riparian habitats for survival.

Creeks and rivers provide water, food, shade, cover from (and for) predators, and breeding and nesting sites. With so many benefits, some riparian habitats hold species that can be found no where else, often certain fish or insect species but sometimes bird and mammal species. For example, California's San Joaquin River is home to the riparian brush rabbit, an endangered species that lives only near rivers. Because of the loss of riparian habitat to farms, housing developments, and flood control dams, the riparian brush rabbit population has dropped by 90 percent. It is stories like this that happen time and again and make it abundantly clear why riparian buffer zones are important.

A riparian buffer zone is an area on either side of a stream that is left forested. The trees and shrubs provide habitat and cover for animals living near or relying on the water source, helps shade the stream from being dried out by the sun, and creates a sort of safety zone between the waterway and the adjacent land that is likely in use by humans for farming or housing. Animals can use the buffer zone as a wildlife corridor for safe traveling, and the shade cools the water so more aquatic species can thrive. Not only do riparian buffer zones help out the flora and fauna, but they help improve water quality. They collect sediment, nutrients and even pesticide run-off from adjacent land, helping to keep the water clear and preventing erosion.

A creek is never just a creek. It is a deeply complex web of plant and animal species all that depend on the water as much as the water depends on them to continue on. So the next time you're enjoying a quiet afternoon by a creek, take a moment to notice just how much life surrounds you.

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