Riparian zones

CNR-IRSA activities related to INHABIT

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Riparian zones

Vegetated buffer strips are particular riparian vegetation zoness (arboreal, shrubby or herbaceous) that may be naturally present along streams or also created ad hoc along artificial hydrographic networks (e.g. irrigation or drain canals).
Riparian vegetation strips are transition zones, or ecotones, separating terrestrial ecosystems from aquatic environment, characterized by frequent flooding and aquifers that persist for long periods in the vicinity of the surface. Hydrological regime becomes thence the main factor in the identification of these areas, as it is essential in maintaining the structure of these ecosystems and ensuring the processes underlying their environmental functions, principally  the ability to modify the chemico-physical features of the soil , surface and groundwater, as well as to structure  biological communities.
In turn, the hydrology of these areas is actively influenced by the presence of buffer strips. Riparian vegetation helps to increase the roughness of the soil surface, slowing the flow of sediment-rich surface, enhancing infiltration and retention of water in the ground and retaining various pollutants in surface and  sub-surface runoff.
Such environments, under certain conditions, can thus act as natural filters, as they help to reduce the contribution of anthropogenic pollutants in surface waters and groundwater, from which the definition of "buffer zones".
The interest towards the vegetated buffer strips comes primarily from their ability to remove nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from agricultural soil and in surface and groundwater runoff. More recently it has also been investigated the role of buffer strips in reducing water contamination by other substances, such as pesticides.

Schematic representation of the role of buffer strips in reducing the pollutant load conveyed in surface water network.

Further details are available in: BALESTRINI R, ARESE C, DELCONTE C (2004). Funzionalità degli ecosistemi acquatici: il ruolo delle fasce riparie nella dinamica dei nutrienti. Quaderno IRSA 121. QUADERNI IRSA DEL CNR, vol. 121, p. 1-140 (in Italian)