Why bother with a buffer? The benefits of a forested riparian buffer zone

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Rural stream
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

Having a stream on your property can have great advantages as the weather begins to warm up — especially for recreational opportunities like fishing, boating and swimming.

But streamside landownership comes with great responsibility to properly manage your riparian zone for the health of your soil and water resources, and for the benefit of downstream users.

What is it?

The riparian zone is the area between land and a stream. A healthy, forested riparian zone serves many purposes in the ecosystem. In fact, some of the best quality streams in Ohio have highly forested riparian zones. Riparian vegetation of adequate width will improve water quality by filtering out pollutants from surface runoff before it enters the stream, such as excess sediment, nutrients, pathogens and pesticides. A forested riparian zone will also regulate a stream’s water temperature by providing shade from tree cover.

Finally, trees in the riparian zone provide leaf litter into the stream, which feeds macroinvertebrates and the fish and amphibians that feed on these aquatic insects. Streamside forests also provide habitat and passage corridors for birds, mammals and other wildlife.

Healthy riparian zone

A healthy riparian zone also links a stream to its watershed and gives the stream access to its floodplain. Riparian vegetation, hydric soils and leaf litter will act as a sponge, soaking up stormwater during high flow events and allowing water to be slowly released back into the stream.

Riparian vegetation will also increase organic matter and reduce soil compaction along a stream, allowing greater water infiltration. Plants that thrive in riparian areas are especially adapted for high water flow energies. Their strong root systems, leaves and stems will help hold soil in place and stabilize the streambank during high flow events. This can help prevent soil erosion, loss of adjacent land and damage to crops or structures during a flood.

Create a riparian zone

It is never a good idea to mow right to the edge of a stream, especially when there are so many benefits of a healthy riparian buffer zone. The recommended minimum width of your riparian buffer may range from 10 to 300 feet, depending on your resource protection goals: streambank stabilization, sediment and nutrient removal, flood control, wildlife enhancement, etc.

Your local municipality may also have its own minimum setback requirements. For help with planning riparian zone enhancement on your property, contact your local soil and water conservation district.

Riparian zone tips:

  • Trees and shrubs planted closest to the stream should be species that are well adapted for wet soils.
  • Always plant native trees and shrubs. They are more likely to survive and will provide more ecological benefits in the riparian zone.
  • It is a good idea to remove invasive species before planting native species.
  • Diversity is important. Using a variety of species, ages, and sizes will provide more protection from diseases, provide better wildlife habitat, and will allow your forested riparian zone to establish more quickly.
  • Remember, it is much more expensive to restore streambank erosion than it is to enhance and maintain a healthy, forested riparian zone.

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Kimberly Lawson is the Captina Creek Watershed coordinator and works with the Belmont Soil and Water Conservation District. She is currently working to implement restoration and preservation projects within the Captina Creek Watershed in eastern Ohio.

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