Riparian Areas: Key to clean water

Riparian Areas

Where land and water meet

Riparian areas are the lands adjacent to streams, river, lakes and wetlands, where the vegetation and soils are strongly influenced by the presence of water. Some riparian areas are fairly narrow, while others extend thousands of feet beyond the water’s edge across broad floodplains.

Caring for riparian areas along rivers, streams and lakes helps protect water quality. You will also protect the beauty of your land and maintain its investment value.

Why are riparian areas important?

  • Riparian vegetation traps sediment and filters the nutrients and other pollutants from runoff before it enters nearby rivers and streams. The result is better water quality.
  • Plants along the river banks slow water movement, help stabilize banks and prevent erosion.
  • Riparian areas lessen the impact of floods by intercepting stormwater, storing the water, and releasing it slowly.
  • Healthy riparian areas produce more forage per unit area than uplands, often resulting in higher livestock weaning weights.
  • Riparian areas provide habitat and food for numerous fish and wildlife species. Elk, moose, deer, muskrat, beaver, mink, bald eagles, osprey and numerous migratory and song birds use riparian corridors for migration, food and habitat.
  • Riparian areas provide recreation for hikers, bird watchers, hunters and anglers as well as scenic landscapes.

Riparian area facts

  • Riparian areas represent less than 1% of the Montana landscape. However, 70% of migratory bird species use riparian habitats during migration.
  • Cottonwood trees are good indicators of healthy riparian areas and floodplains.
  • Riparian areas provide a buffer, an insurance policy, especially useful to have during drought or flooding.

Are riparian areas at risk?

“Streams with raw, eroding banks, valleys with no willows or cottonwoods, streams that no longer flow year round, or don’t have trout populations, provide signals to us, a wake up call!” (Adams and Fitch, 1998. Caring for The Green Zone, Riparian Areas and Grazing Management)

Today, people flock to the Flathead for its high quality of life and scenic beauty, making the area among the fastest growing parts of Montana. Growth and development can mean an increase in water pollution. Removing riparian vegetation, building houses close to rivers and streams, building more septic systems, roads and parking lots can all result in more nutrients reaching our waters.

As growth continues, riparian areas that filter out pollutants become even more important to maintain clean water in our rivers, streams, lakes and groundwater.

Riparian areas in the Flathead

Typical riparian vegetation in western Montana includes black cottonwood, alder, sycamore, box elder, creek dogwood and willow trees. Riparian forests can also include pine trees, such as grand fir, subalpine fir, and Douglas fir, Engelman spruce, western red cedar, western hemlock, and ponderosa pine.

The rivers and lakes of the Flathead are priceless assets for the people of the Flathead Valley and Montana. Boating, fishing, hiking, bird watching, and waterfowl and whitetail deer hunting are popular activities on the rivers, their banks and surrounding fields and woodlands.

The Lower Flathead River and Flathead Lake are among the most treasured resources for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Indian people used the river and lake for traveling, hunting, fishing, camping and to practice spiritual traditions for thousands of years. Tribal members still use the lake and river for subsistence hunting and fishing, plant harvesting and to practice cultural traditions.

The riparian corridor, wetlands and sloughs along the Flathead River support nesting habitat for bald eagles, osprey, Canada geese, waterfowl, upland game birds, great blue herons and double-crested cormorants. The river corridor provides some of the best habitat in Montana for white-tailed deer, beaver, river otter, muskrats, and mink.

Bull trout, a threatened species, and westslope cutthroat trout, a species of concern, use the Flathead, Stillwater and Whitefish rivers for migration and spawning. Wetlands and sloughs along the Flathead River provide important bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout winter habitat.

To learn more about the Flathead River corridor between Columbia Falls and Flathead Lake, the wildlife it supports, and how gravel bars and sandbars determine the forest types in the floodplain, see our Critical Lands Status Report.