River TIP #1: Protect your floodplain.
Hello, Beloved River Folk.
Today begins a series of the five Top Important Points (TIPs) for enhancing the rivers you love AND living like a gorgeous, healthy, wild river yourself.
When you follow TIP#1, you almost don’t need any other tips because your river has a deep resilience. Then it doesn’t matter what happens: your stream handles it. You thrive.
In a nutshell
Every natural river has a place to spill when things get big and fast and crazy. A floodplain has three characteristics:
~ level, and
~ connected to the river.
What’s that look like for a human? Where can your excess energy spread out and calm down? Is it walking outside, lying next to your fireplace, laughing with a friend, letting your pet snuggle on top of you, stitching things, building things?
I would NOT say a floodplain is “next to the river.” The floodplain is not a separate entity. The floodplain is as much a part of the river as the bed and banks. Remembering this may be the one easiest way to revolutionize river wellbeing.
That’s the core of Tip #1. If you want to delve into the why’s and wherefores, feel free to read on. Either way, I’d love to hear your comments and stories about floodplains both riverine and personal.
Yours in peace, love, and wild rivers,
Your river channel alone CANNOT be big enough to accommodate your floods.
~ Picture such an impractically huge channel: It would take up a whole valley.
And that over-sized river wouldn’t work well in regular or low flows. You’d have a thin sheet of water without cool-dark pools, oxygen-providing riffles, or tree-lined banks.
~ When a floodplain DOES become compromised — when flood flows get squeezed into the area between the river’s banks — that huge amount of water has to move quickly and that gives the water excess power. It has no choice but to cut down into the river’s foundation.
–> This is the most sure-fire way to begin a “head-cut” and unravel a river. <–
A floodplain saves the river from erosion by acting as a safety valve. It allows floodwater to leave the channel, get wide and shallow, and therefore lose velocity and strength. Then the water’s too weak to cut into the stream bed or banks.
Here’s the cool thing: it’s a two-way win because the floodwater also helps the floodplain. The slowed water doesn’t have the strength to carry the load of fine dirt, nutrients, and seeds that it gathered upstream, so It drops that material all over the floodplain. The enriched soil grows lush plants, and the plants in turn support lots of different life forms.
Actually the benefits extend even further! Upstream animals visit the stream before heading back home to reproduce, hunt, and be hunted. In other words, the river feeds the entire ecosystem. Win-win-and-WIN.
Your safety valves — your pets, friends, family, home, neighborhood, best-beloved beach or mountain — also benefit from your presence when they are “helping” you. And the world at large benefits from the ripples that radiate from your relief and gladness. Never think you need to “spare” your floodplain.
Your floodplain welcomes your floodwaters.
But here’s the issue I have noticed among us humans: In order to buy into the importance of a stream’s floodplain, we first have to accept the fundamental hydrologic fact that floods are fine.
Floods are natural. In a wild stream, some water leaves the banks and spills on to the floodplain about once every two years! Sometimes it’s a huge amount of water; sometimes it’s a small amount. I can’t stress it enough: flooding is normal and to be expected. It’s not a freak occurrence. It would be weird if flooding didn’t happen regularly.
This is as true of your life as it is your river. Floods are unavoidable. And that’s wonderful because…
Floods are healthy for the river, essential in allowing it to move rocks and dirt through the system.
And floods nourish life around the river and beyond.
Of course, each type of river has a different kind of floodplain:
Straight, fast step-pool-types have a tiny ledge-like floodplain, whereas slow-elaborately-meandering-types‘ floodplains take up huge valleys.
Natural Channel Hydrology differentiates eight stream-types. Want to know which kind of river you are? Click here to take the quick quiz!
Even though all floodplains are different, it’s not complicated to build, maintain, or re-build them.
All you have to do is let the river be the river.
1. Allow floods to happen
Don’t try to dam up big events. Event-full lives and river systems are the best (which is awesome since they also are unavoidable). Let the happenings, ideas, and emotion flow because that wide variety of power and nourishment automatically builds your channel and floodplain to be exactly the perfect shape for your climate, soil, and geography.
2. Identify your “bankfull boundary”
In between the floods and the trickles there is a flow that forms your river’s banks. It’s not as easy to identify as you might think (particularly if a river has been messed with by humans). Click here to learn more, but meanwhile, think of this: your bankfull is where you find yourself sitting most comfortably on a late summer day to have a picnic. It’s the most peaceful place along your river.
3. Identify your floodplain and make sure it’s open, even, and accessible to the river
Once you know your bankfull level, look IMMEDIATELY next to it for a flat area. Then…
Keep it wild.
~ Do not allow anything un-natural in this entire area: no buildings and no man-made piles of extra dirt that stick up above bankfull elevation. Keep all such obstructions as far, far away as you can. This is easier said than done; such a lush area is attractive to outside development, and there is also a tendency to build berms to keep the floodwaters “under control.” Just say no!
~ Trees and bushes are, of course, are welcome. In fact, their deep roots are important. Don’t be tempted to clear them and plant civilized grass.
As a human, you can and should have other living creatures as part of your personal floodplain. How to tell if someone is helping or hindering your flood relief?
: If a person, creature, or situation obstructs your flow — narrowing you or making you move more quickly — gives you the sense that the ground under or around you is eroding, or seems bothered by the sheer volume of your living, then they need to be moved well away from your daily life and your super-charged times as well.
:If a person, creature, or situation makes you feel more peaceful in the intense times — and your presence in those times seems to nourish them as well — then you have found your floodplain. Guard it.
~ As you evaluate, protect, and clear your floodplain, start close to the regular channel and move out from there. First and most especially, protect your bankfull edges. Keep development and livestock away from them or your boundaries will be erased. You won’t even be able to identify your floodplain. (Furthermore, without intact bankfull banks, your river’s dynamics can’t work at any flow level.)
Fences are fine because water can go right through most of them without constriction. In fact, nowadays, somewhat ironically, unless you live in a remote, huge landscape, good fences make for wild rivers.
So there you have it, my friends: may your floodplains be wild and your fences strong and wildlife-friendly. I hope I see you tomorrow for River TIP #2!