Around the Water Cooler: Riparian Buffers

Vegetation benefits more than just creating fun ways to catch fish!

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

I can remember my little brother hanging on tree branches over the top of the stream that ran through our property growing up. He would reach in to catch fish with his bare hands. He was quite successful, amazingly. This was pretty much a daily occurrence much to my mother’s chagrin.

We were always playing in or around that stream. Back then we didn’t know that  much of the fun  was thanks to a riparian buffer—the bank of the stream sprinkled with native trees, shrubs, and grasses that “buffer” the stream from all kinds of pollutants that flow across the land.

These trees and plants provided more than just fun for us and the other kids in the neighborhood, they also stabilized the stream bank from soil erosion and created a healthy habitat for wildlife—like the fish my brother constantly harassed.

Today, EPA researchers, recognizing the scientific value of nature, have been studying riparian buffers. They find that the wider the buffer, the more likely it will substantially reduce the polluted runoff—including excess nitrogen and phosphorus, sediment and pesticides—from reaching a stream. Even in cities, urban greenways and other narrow bands of vegetation can make some improvements in water quality and quantity. The “buffer” also can reduce floodwaters, helping to maintain stable streambanks and protecting downstream properties. More trees, shrubs and plants create a more beautiful aesthetic and certainly don’t hurt property values.

So, before you decide to clear the way for a view of a stream or river, or expand your lawn for that fresh golf course look, consider the fact that these plants and trees protect your property and are cost-effective “flood insurance” for your home. A buffer with native trees and vegetation can even cut your heating costs in winter by cutting the wind before it chills your home. Plus, think about the birds, fish, frogs, and butterflies that will love to call your property home too.

Some of my fondest memories come from playing along the stream and I am glad my parents chose to keep our house in the natural habitat, protecting our water.

About the Author: A regular “It All Starts with Science” blogger, Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team.