Small things can help protect streams, rivers

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It's easy to forget in our busy lives that our local streams contain native fish species.

If you have a stream running past your business, home or farm, chances are it has native fish living in it. No different than us, fish have certain requirements for survival, and how we manage our rivers and streams has an enormous impact on them.

Like so many things, rivers seem simple at first but quickly become more complicated as you learn more about them. Some people have devoted entire careers to understanding all the complexities associated with rivers -- the math, the chemistry, the physics and all the associated connections.

I am not one of these people, but I have learned enough about rivers to annoy my wife while we travel together.

"Look at that poor stream, honey. Wow, it sure is lacking large woody debris, and look at the eroding banks. Hey, why are you hitting your head against the window?"

At some point in your education about rivers you stop looking at them for what they are and instead see them for what they used to be.

Rivers are said to be dynamic, always changing in one way or another, perhaps traversing entire valley floors and back again if given enough time.

Humans want rivers to be predictable and stay in the same place. Floods are not fun, and for this reason we have built dams, straightened our rivers, constructed levees and armored the banks. If you have ever seen old photos of floodwaters from Mill Creek running down Main Street in Walla Walla you can understand why.

But for a river or stream to provide the greatest benefit to water quality, native fish and wildife -- and future recreational and educational opportunities -- it's critical we (all of us) do what we can to help the river function as natural as possible.

Although it may be impractical to fully restore all of our local streams to full biological value, there is one thing we all can do.

Whether you own a very small segment of land along Yellowhawk Creek or a very large section of the Walla Walla River, the single most important thing you can do as a landowner to protect yourself and the stream is to leave a riparian buffer. Riparian buffers are a vegetative transition zone between land and water growing along the stream and are typically composed of trees, shrubs and grasses.

Riparian zones are critical in preventing bank erosion, slowing flows during high water events, filtering surface runoff that may contain various pollutants such as fertilizers, regulating water temperatures, capturing debris and providing food for aquatic insects and wildlife among other things.

If you have a stream running through your backyard, please don't remove the vegetation right up to the very edge of the stream. Leave a strip of wild vegetation along the edge of the stream, just a few feet of plants can be helpful along small streams and if you can leave more width even better.

If you live along a larger river like the Walla Walla, Touchet, or Mill Creek, try to leave a much larger buffer. You can contact your local Conservation District about various programs to help pay for this work.

And please, do not discard unwanted items or anything that may be potentially toxic along the stream.

Remember, by protecting our riparian areas, we not only protect our own property, but also provide future benefit to native species and our community.

Jed Volkman is a fish habitat biologist with the Umatilla Tribes.

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