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Feature: Flooding and the Value of Riparian Buffers – Conservation Tools for Landowners
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Cedar Creek riparian buffer project completed by Wildlands Conservancy in South Whitehall Twp., Lehigh County

By Brian J. Vadino, Wildlands Conservancy

Last September, our local streams flooded their banks, thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Ivan. Flooding is a natural phenomenon, yet no one relishes the destruction of roads, properties, and personal belongings as a result of flooding.

Experiencing Hurricane Ivan was both difficult and eye-opening, and it showed us, first-hand, nature’s ability to alter our landscape in a matter of a few hours. One of the things that we also immediately observed was that the effects of flooding were minimized at locations where riparian buffers were in place.

Riparian buffers are areas of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation along rivers, streams, lakes, or other water bodies that form a transition between land and water environments. The creation of riparian buffers is one of the most effective tools that can be used to protect the health of our waterways and watersheds, and can provide a multitude of benefits for landowners and the community.

Riparian buffers filter sediments and pollutants commonly found in runoff, protect drinking-water supplies, provide floodwater storage, increase groundwater infiltration, provide cooler water and air temperatures, decrease streambank erosion, increase wildlife habitat, act as a food source, provide recreation areas, and improve the aesthetic beauty of an area. For these reasons, riparian buffers and no-mow zones are effective and logical tools that landowners along both small and large waterways can use to protect streams and stream corridors.

Land-use activities, such as the development of land that converts forest acreage into to residential, commercial, and industrial uses, can negatively influence the health of riparian buffers and stream corridors. For example, an increase in the amount of impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots, in a watershed also increases the volume and velocity of water directed into streams through storm drains and other stormwater-management structures.

Regulating the encroachment of land-development activities into floodplain areas is one of several more obvious strategies that can be used to reduce the potential for a flood to cause losses or damages to property. Riparian buffers can also be an extremely effective tool in lessening a flood event’s potential to create the loss or damage to property while achieving several additional environmental and ecological benefits.

Using riparian buffers as a type of individual “best management practice,” or as part of an integrated management system, such as nutrient management and sediment-and-erosion control practices, can produce a number of beneficial effects on the quality of our water resources.

The design of a riparian buffer zone should be determined by the management objectives for the area and by site characteristics. Generally, the zone should be wide enough to achieve the management objectives for the area. Some of the site characteristics that should be considered when designing a riparian buffer include slope, soil texture and erodibility, drainage area, streambank height, adjacent land use, and existing vegetation.

Although establishing standard-width guidelines for riparian zones at a regional or state level offers some protection for waterways, site-specific considerations are usually needed to determine the most appropriate width. However as a rule of thumb, the wider the riparian buffer, the better.

Even though specific species recommendations for riparian buffer areas depend on the geographic location of the buffer and other factors, the use of native vegetation is highly recommended for its ecological value in providing food and habitat for wildlife. Generally, riparian buffer plant species lists should include a diversity of native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants.

Some maintenance is usually required in order to successfully establish a viable riparian buffer area. Examples of maintenance requirements might include watering newly established plants, checking vegetation for signs of deer browse, and removing exotic or invasive plants. Although some level of maintenance is usually required in newly created buffer areas, riparian buffer maintenance activities are usually required less regularly in established areas.

Several federal, state, and county agencies can provide various forms of technical information and assistance to landowners interested in designing and establishing riparian buffers on their properties. Technical information and lists of appropriate riparian plant species can be obtained from the following sources:

· County conservation districts (multiple counties)

· Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

· Pennsylvania Game Commission

· Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission

· U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

· U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service

In the future, it will become increasingly more important for landowners and communities to take advantage of opportunities to establish riparian buffers along our smallest and largest of waterways. By seizing such opportunities, we can reduce the potential for floods to cause loss and damage to property, while also achieving a number of additional environmental and ecological benefits.

Brian J. Vadino is Stream Restoration Manager for the Wildlands Conservancy and can be contact at bvadino@wildlandspa.org .


2/25/2005

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