Riparian buffers: The benefits of putting trees by streams

roots by stream
Tree roots can help filter out pollutants before they reach waterways, prevent erosion and help keep vital wildlife habitats in place. (Submitted photo)

Having a stream run through a property or farm can be seen as having great value since it can provide easy access to water. However, for those who face erosion issues on their land, a stream can be seen as a detriment. Just as a stream can be seen to benefit or harm our land, what we do on the land can benefit or harm the stream itself and, in turn, influence how that stream interacts with our land.

So let’s dive into (no pun intended) how we can enjoy streams and improve our connections to such a refreshing resource. What can we do to protect and benefit our land while protecting and benefiting a stream?

The answer is simple. Plant a riparian buffer! A riparian buffer is an area adjacent to a stream, lake or wetland that contains a combination of trees, shrubs and other native perennial plants, and they improve the health of the water and land in many ways. How do buffers help streams and land?

The power of roots

The roots in a buffer create an underground net that stabilizes the stream’s bank and prevent erosion. If you’re like me and enjoy walking through woods, up hills, down in creeks or in boggy areas, you know that the power of roots is easy to see. If you’re trying to stop sinking into a wet boggy area, what do you look to step on? Bushy plants with roots. When you’re sliding down a hill or into a creek, what do you grab at to stop your fall? Roots.

Just as roots have saved me and probably some of you adventurous types from tumbling into creeks, they do the same for our precious soils. They keep soil, sediment and excess nutrients out of the water where they don’t belong, which in turns keeps them accessible to plants and crops. Without these root systems, banks weaken and soil is more easily swept away.

Keeping soil and resources in place

Many resources go into creating fertile soils for crops. If stream banks slough away, those resources are lost and so is land. That benefits no one, and it causes problems downstream. Algae can grow more easily due to excess nutrients. The rocky substrate in streams that fish use as habitat can be destroyed and smothered by silt and sediment. One of Ohio’s biggest pollutants to its waterways is sediment. So let’s keep soil in its place, where it can grow trees, plants and crops for a better tomorrow.

Slowing water

Buffers help prevent erosion in another way. Plants can slow water from rushing into streams and give it a way to soak into the ground at a more natural rate. The lack of a buffer allows runoff to increase in speed and force, creating flashy waters with the strength to erode land more easily. Buffers can help water levels rise and drop at a more natural rate.

Sizing and planting a buffer

Now, I’m not usually one who follows the “bigger is better” mentality. However, when it comes to riparian buffers, I have to admit that I get overly excited to plant as many trees, shrubs and native plants around a stream as possible. But since I am not making my living off the land and having to sacrifice acres that could be used for growing crops, I understand that going big may not be an option for all people. Everyone has a different relationship with their land and property, and that’s respectable.

A general rule for planning a buffer that positively impacts the land and water is: from the bank on both sides of the stream, the buffer should extend 30 feet or 1.5 times the width of the stream, whichever is greater. However, depending where you live or what your goals may be, a wider riparian buffer might prove to be drastically more beneficial.

Assistance and guidance

If you or someone you know is interested in retiring cropland to create a buffer, there are programs that may offer some assistance. The Farm Service Agency has programs available under both Continuous Conservation Reserve Program and also Lake Erie Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that may be of service to farmers looking to retire cropland to create a buffer. If it’s only guidance that’s being sought, reaching out to your county’s local soil water conservation district, United State Department of Agriculture, or Ohio State University Extension office may provide insight on what trees, shrubs or plants could be used and how to begin thinking about establishing a buffer.

Whether you’re just curious or seriously want to pursue protecting your stream or your land with a buffer, I wish you luck. You can start off small, tackling only what you can handle, by slowly planting native trees around a stream. Any step towards a buffer can help your land and the land of your neighbors downstream.


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Abby Costilow is the watershed education specialist for Medina SWCD. Abby has been with the district for 3.5 years and focuses their work on education and community partnership efforts to protect water resources for all residents of Medina County. She can be reached at



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