4.1 How healthy are your river banks?
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Curriculum Alignment

3, 5, 14, 18, 19

Years K-6: Science and Technology, HSIE
Years 7-10: Agriculture, Science, Technics  
Years 11-12: Agriculture, Chemistry, Biology, Earth and Environmental Science, Society and Culture

SOSE, Science, Geography

Futures, Interdependence, Thinking

Science, Thinking Processes, Geography

>Students will describe river bank (riparian) health based on a series of nine easily observable parameters
>Students will define the vocabulary relating to this subject area
>Students will use their riparian health ratings to detail strategies for improving the condition of their waterway
>Students will discuss threats to water quality in their catchment

1 hour

Materials required
>Survey forms
>Boots and nets (optional)
>Task cards (see below)
>White board markers
>Easel and paper with markers
>Rapid Appraisal of Riparian Condition for Secondary pathway (hyperlink available on Sustaining River Life cd and web versions)

Riparian zones are where land (terrestrial) and freshwater (aquatic) ecosystems meet. They are a vital part of river systems, usually supporting high levels of biodiversity and being zones through which there are constant interactions (chemical and physical) between dry and wet areas.

Being at the boundary of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, riparian areas are excellent indicators of river health; a degraded riparian zone will inevitably lead to a degraded river system.

A healthy river bank. Photograph: Bill Phillips
A healthy river bank. Photograph: Bill Phillips

Human settlement has always been focused along rivers, but sadly human activities have not always been sympathetic to the impacts being caused through actions taken along the riverbank, on the floodplain or along creek lines draining into rivers.

One of the greatest (negative) impacts on riparian areas has been the introduction of domestic stock, with grazing being the major land use over 60% of Australia’s land surface. Stock concentrate around water sources, which means riparian and wetland habitats, as well as those around artificial watering points in pastoral regions, suffer significant impacts from domestic and feral grazing animals.

Damage done by cattle allowed to drink at a waterway. Photograph: Bill Phillips
Damage done by cattle allowed to drink at a waterway. Photograph: Bill Phillips

Land use
Riparian zone

Lesson plan
1. At the river, stream or wetland, divide the students into 3-4 groups.

2. Explain what a habitat is. Ask the students to identify several habitats in the river bank (riparian) zone. Explain how riparian zones are more habitat rich than a more open country or forested areas, and thus their importance as an ecosystem to support a wider variety of plant and animal species. 

 3. Give each group of students one of the three Task cards (1 is about land use, litter and pipes and drains; 2 is about structures and modifications, smell and water clarity and 3 is about vegetation, invertebrates and vertebrates) and a highlighter and get them to complete the card by providing a rating or score.

Remind them that 0
means maximum impact
such as lots and lots of
litter, putrid smelling
water or bare ground.

4. Gather and tally the student data and rate the site scores with a maximum of 90 points. Ask the students to discuss areas of concern observed at the site. Help students rate the severity of differing issues and their own ability to tackle the problems they have discovered.

 5. With the students, map out a plan to address the factors that concerned them most from their survey.

Pristine habitat along the upper Namoi River highlighting a Casuarina-dominated vegetation community.  Photograph: Anthony Townsend I&I NSW
Pristine habitat along the upper Namoi River highlighting a Casuarina-dominated vegetation community. Photograph: Anthony Townsend I&I NSW

Create a map showing where water at the site comes from and get the students to document ways that water might get contaminated upstream.

Possibilities include soil
erosion, pollution from
urban storm water or
roadworks, chemical
contamination from 
farming activities etc.

Create species lists of plants and animals found at the site. 
Research how the biodiversity of the site could be improved (such as with appropriate native species plantings, weed removal, carp control, nest boxes, re-snagging to create fish habitats, etc).

Secondary pathway
Assess the site using the Rapid Appraisal of Riparian Condition (hyperlink available on Sustaining River Life cd and web versions).