Protecting Water Quality and Connecting Protected Places in Texas Using Riparian Connectivity Networks
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Widespread development and land use changes across the United States (U.S.) have fragmented its landscape, altering the flow of resources between natural environments and significantly reducing habitat connectivity. While habitat connectivity is critical for many environmental and societal benefits, it has historically played a secondary role in the management of U.S. public lands. The establishment of a Riparian Connectivity Network (RCN), to connect protected habitat by the protection of riparian lands, has been proposed as a framework to address this issue. I investigated the potential of the RCN framework to increase connectivity and protect water quality in HUC-8 watersheds within the state of Texas with particular focus on the role of stream mitigation banks. Watersheds of interest were identified as those with the largest expected increase in impervious surface, largest percent of area protected, and lowest percent of riparian lands protected. I then created a stream prioritization scheme within each HUC-8 to identify stream reaches that would be considered in the establishment of a mitigation bank; this prioritization was based on stream order (prioritizing headwaters over larger streams) and land cover (prioritizing more degraded lands for their potential to be improved by mitigation). The shortest path able to link as many protected areas as possible was then isolated from the prioritization model to create an RCN showing which portions of the network could be fulfilled by Clean Water Act (CWA) mitigation not normally considered in a connectivity context. The RCN concept has the potential to combine various environmental efforts operating in the riparian zone in order to improve water quality and increase ecological connectivity.