Plant a Tree, Save a River!

Riparian Buffer in an agricultural areaBy Christina Catanese

Since this is the Healthy Waters Blog, you might be wondering why we’re concerned about forests.  But unlike Vegas, what happens on the land doesn’t stay on the land – it affects streams and rivers, especially if the land is right next to the water.  It turns out that having forests right next to waterways (as opposed to developed or tilled agricultural land) is highly beneficial to water quality, ecosystems, and humans.  These vegetated strips of land are often referred to as “riparian buffers.”

I have always been astounded at the amazing power of trees and plants to provide so many benefits to our environment and communities.  Forested stream banks act like a sponge, filtering out excessive nutrients, sediment, and other pollutants that run off from the land that would be damaging if they entered a stream.  Shrubs and trees are also able to prevent stream bank erosion by anchoring the soils, keeping the banks stable and excess sediment out of the stream.  Buffers can even help mitigate flooding by absorbing and slowing down surface runoff.

Forested streams also provide enhanced habitat for wildlife.  Leaves, twigs, and other natural plant litter that fall into the stream provide food and habitat for organisms in the water, and the corridors of natural vegetation along stream banks allow land-based mammals and birds to thrive.

Riparian forest buffers also aid greatly in maintaining cool stream temperatures.  You know how much better it feels to stand in the shade of a tree on a hot day rather than out in the hot sun?  Well, stream organisms prefer their streams to be shaded as well.  Studies have shown that removing the canopy can cause the stream’s temperature to rise by as much as 15 degrees.  Warmer streams can’t carry as much dissolved oxygen, and some organisms can’t survive in these conditions.

That’s all nice for the fish, but what about people?  Riparian buffers also benefit human communities.  Wouldn’t you rather fish and swim in a healthy, forested, shady stream?  I know I would.  Forested streams stimulate local economies by enhancing fisheries and recreational opportunities.  The presence of riparian buffers can also result in higher property values in communities and add aesthetic value.  The water quality improvements from buffers also enhance the quality of our drinking water, so by preserving forests, we actually protect our water supply.The Delaware River Basin, for example, provides high quality drinking water to nearly 15 million people from New York to Delaware, largely because of the mature forest canopy that has been maintained upstream.  Preserving forests in the headwaters contributes to water quality both upstream and downstream water quality.  Another plus: buffer preservation and restoration are pretty cost-effective strategies for managing nonpoint source pollution.

Seems almost common sense given all the benefits, doesn’t it?  But there can be obstacles to implementation, like funding, competing land-use practices, political will, or lack of awareness of the benefits.  EPA encourages buffers as a best management practice through its Nonpoint Source Program,with tools and resources to incorporate buffer restoration in regional planning.

Reforesting streams in the Chesapeake Bay is also an important strategy for the basin’s nutrient pollution diet.  Learn how the Bay program and the basin states are working to restore 10,000 miles of riparian forest in the Bay’s watershed, and see how the states have incorporated riparian reforestation into their Watershed Implementation Plans. Watch a video by the Chesapeake Bay Program Office to hear more about how forests and the Chesapeake Bay are related, and what makes a forest healthy.

What do you think about forested versus unforested streams?  Have you noticed if streams and rivers in your area have trees or not?  Do you know of any initiatives to create and preserve riparian buffers?

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, and her work focuses on data analysis and management, GIS mapping and tools, communications, and other tasks that support the work of Regional water programs. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Political Science and an M.S. in Applied Geosciences with a Hydrogeology concentration. Trained in dance (ballet, modern, and other styles) from a young age, Christina continues to perform, choreograph and teach in the Philadelphia area.

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