Rivers of Life, Ribbons of Green

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:04/14/2011 Updated:10/09/2012

Whether in the West or the East, riparian habitat is where it’s at for wildlife, water conservation, flood control, and beauty.

Ribbons of life, vessels carrying precious fluid, the arteries that sustain the land.  Choose your cliche, but it’s all true.  Rivers may not be the most mystical or the most vast, but they are surely the most precious places on earth.

Riparian, meaning the transitional area between land and water, is the scientific name for the place where otters cavort, beavers build their dens, deer drink, wetlands meander, and songbirds of all types nest and sing.  

For the past 15 years or so, the Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service have led the Cooperative Riparian Management Program to restore riparian habitats throughout the arid west.  In Texas, where federal land is scarce, the Nueces River Basin Authority has taken on the same mission for an area 235 miles long and 115 miles wide stretching from the Texas Hill Country to the Coastal Plains.  

The Nueces River Authority Touts “Remarkable Riparian”

The Nueces River Authority(NRA), created in 1935, has broad authority to preserve, protect, and develop surface water resources, but it does not receive any state or federal appropriations or taxes.  Sky Jones-Lewey is one of the NRA staff who have helped to develop the Riparian Landowner’s Network with support from private foundations and Texas Parks and Wildlife.  

The Network was created to raise awareness and cultivate understanding among riparian landowners about the relationship between healthy riparian areas and abundant clean water in the Nueces Basin.  Their goal is to develop a critical mass of people who understand riparian systems and interact with each other to manage their resources.  To this end, Sky regularly organizes workshops for landowners within the basin for hands-on learning, taught by experts.  The workshops include hydrology, vegetation, erosion/deposition.  The information has been successfully used in many locations to promote cooperative riparian management among landowners.  

The NRA has also developed an incredibly useful publication, “Your Remarkable Riparian,” a field guide to riparian plants within the Texas Nueces River Basin, filled with pictures and graphics designed to get a landowner well on his or her way to becoming a riparian expert.  In the words of one fishing guide, “Riparian grasses are amazing!  They have extreme root systems . . . and produce three to five times more root volume than top growth.  The stability offered by thickly matted grass roots allows for the creation of undercuts, providing excellent fish habitat.”

Living, Breathing Rivers

As is the case generally with private lands, riparian zones are usually fragmented by numerous ownerships and an often confusing array of water rights held by various entities.  The most important achievement of organizations like the Nueces River Authority is getting landowners to see themselves as part of a living system, envisioning a healthy “breathing” river spilling out into its flood plain and retracting back to its river bed with changes in flow.  

Riparian vegetation is, of course, integral to the stability and function of riparian areas and wildlife.  Sky summarizes, “Vegetation contributes to unique, water sensitive ecosystems that perform a variety of ecological functions.”  Or, more poetically, in the words of Steve Nelle, Wildlife biologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service:  “In functioning condition, the riparian ‘root basket‘ can act like a cradle holding the streambed above the bedrock and protecting the banks.”

Riparian-Passionate Texans

If you are a Texas landowner in the Nueces watershed, your last chance to attend one of Sky’s stellar workshops will be this May 2-6, 2011.  The training program has run its course, and Sky says others will be carrying the torch for riparian habitat across the rest of Texas.  However, the Network finale will be a “Remarkable Riparian Summit” October 6, 2011 in San Antonio.   Event sponsors are being sought.

Sky and her colleagues envision the summit as a meeting of  “riparian-passionate” Texans and as a forum to learn, share and plan for growth of riparian understanding in the state.  Proceedings will be distributed to decision makers and water leaders all across Texas.

For more information, contact Sky Lewey at or call 830-278-6810 for more information.