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Riparian Buffers: Pennsylvania's Best Solution for Protecting Its Waters

This article explains the benefits of using riparian buffers--vegetated areas next to streams, wetlands, ponds, rivers, and lakes--to protect the health of waterways, livestock, adjacent crops or property, and all who drink and use water downstream.
Riparian buffers protect our water, soil, and ecosystems.

Riparian buffers protect our water, soil, and ecosystems.

The Problem

Sediments, nutrients, and other pollutants that runoff to Pennsylvania's waters present health risks to humans and herds, and the overall ecology of stream systems.

Construction, farming, urban and commercial areas, and roads can all contribute to the availability of chemicals, sediments, and wastes that are easily washed from the land into waterways during rain events.

These pollutants degrade water quality, posing threats to all who consume or come in contact with the affected waters.

Unstable banks of waterways and degraded or diminished floodplains exacerbate erosion and flooding, placing neighboring lands, pastures, and crops at risk of increased loss and damage.

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Soil erosion and nutrient runoff can contribute to poor water quality.

A Solution

Riparian buffers—vegetated areas next to streams, wetlands, ponds, rivers, and lakes—are farmers' and landowners' most effective tool for protecting the health of the waterways, livestock, adjacent crops or property, and all who drink and use water downstream. Riparian buffers are known to reduce the negative impacts to waterways caused by earth-disturbing activities on the landscape.

Informed landowners who know how to manage their riparian buffers will see firsthand the benefits this practice can provide.

Did you know...

Riparian buffers are essential to feed, shelter, and provide travel paths to more than 95 percent of all terrestrial wildlife species in North America. This includes birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and beneficial insects such as pollinators.

Benefits and Challenges

Pennsylvania's streams range from a worst-case scenario of "no riparian buffer" to the best-of-the-best buffer—a forested riparian buffer. What benefits and challenges will landowners experience based on what’s happening along their waterways?

Worst Case: No Riparian Protection

Livestock that have uncontrolled access to a waterway present direct threats to the health of humans, livestock, and definitely all who depend on water downstream, as well as the stream’s own ecology—especially fisheries. Livestock access to waterways results in direct injection of animal wastes into the water, where waterborne diseases can be transmitted through human and animal contact and consumption. In addition, the hoof action on the streambanks and streambed significantly increases erosion and sediment pollution, diminishing water clarity and destroying the ability for stream habitat to support the aquatic life. Without a buffer alongside a waterway, the floodplain’s function of retaining floodwater and recharging groundwater is seriously decreased.

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Worst case: No riparian protection

Did you know...

Field studies suggest that livestock prefer drinking from a watering system over stream access because of improved water quality and better footing and visibility.

Improved: Streambank Fence

Fencing livestock out of the stream has multiple and immediate benefits. It improves the quality of the streambed and streambanks by reducing erosion from animal movement through the area. It also benefits the local stream quality by eliminating the direct discharge of animal wastes into the water, decreasing the potential for waterborne disease and transmittal from animal to animal. It also improves local water quality by reducing the inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus. By decreasing the hoof action in the streambed, water clarity will improve because of the reduced mud and disturbance, enabling the habitat for aquatic life (including fisheries and the invertebrates they eat) to re-establish.

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Improved: Streambank fence

Did you know...

Riparian buffer areas are capable of retaining more than 300,000 pounds of sediment per acre per year.

Better: Fence + Vegetation Buffer

A space between the fence and the water that is vegetated provides even greater benefits. A vegetated buffer composed of grasses, flowering plants, and shrubs, in combination with a fence, reduces the potential for runoff from fields, roadways, and pastures to enter waters by acting as a natural filter system, improving the capacity of the riparian area to better retain flood waters. In addition, this area can provide outstanding habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. A number of government and conservation partner programs are geared toward assisting landowners in the development and management of a riparian buffer. With or without cost-share assistance, landowners will experience many benefits through the installation of riparian buffers.

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Better: Fence + a vegetation buffer

Did you know...

USDA studies show that riparian buffers reduce nitrogen from agricultural runoff by 68 percent.

Gold Bar: Forested Riparian Buffer

Forested riparian buffers add tremendous value to land by maximizing the protection of waterways from all activities under way in the field, pasture, roads, and adjacent lands. The tree root systems improve nutrient cycling, especially nitrogen, and also trap phosphorus and sediments. The tree canopy shades the stream, and as the leaves fall to the water, they become a critical food source for the aquatic life, essential indicators of stream health. The increased capacity for floodwater retention in a forested riparian buffer significantly reduces the potential for crop and pasture flooding and damage. Establishing a forested riparian buffer simulates nature’s best options for protecting and improving Pennsylvania's waterways.

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The gold bar: Forested riparian buffer

Did you know...

What lives in the stream is the best indicator of a stream's health. Many of the stream's residents depend on the surrounding trees for their food source.

References for "Did you Know" statements are attributed to:

Surface runoff water quality in a managed three-zone riparian buffer. USDA Agricultural Research Service

USEPA Biological Indicators of Watershed Health

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Title

Riparian Buffers: Pennsylvania's Best Solution for Protecting Its Waters

Code

EE0129

Cost

Free

This publication is available in alternative media on request.