watershed protection

Take Cover! (With Vegetation)

By Marguerite Huberbuffer

Take cover!

It’s a phrase you yell to protect against something headed your way. But did you ever think that phrase could be applied to pollutants? Well, it can – vegetative cover acts as a defense against non-point source (NPS) pollutants, protecting our lakes, streams, and water bodies.

Vegetative filter strips and riparian buffers  are conservation practices that help control the amount of sediment and chemicals that are transported from agricultural fields into water bodies. They slow down the speed of runoff and capture nutrients, keep more nutrient-rich topsoil on farmers’ fields, and reduces impacts on downstream ecosystems.

To improve water quality in large watersheds, conservation managers need to know what the problems are, where the pollutants originate, and what conservation practices work best.  However, investigating all of these factors at the watershed-wide level is a very difficult and complex task. This is why EPA is working with partners to supplement an existing watershed simulation model to estimate the efficiency of riparian buffers.

USDA’s watershed simulation model, Annualized Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution (AnnAGNPS), is used to evaluate the effect of farming and conservation practices on pollutants and help decide where to put these practices.  AnnAGNPS also predicts the origin and tracks the movement of water, sediment, and chemicals to any location in the watershed.

To supplement this model, researchers from EPA, USDA, and Middle Tennessee State University developed a Geographic Information Systems–based technology that estimates the efficiency of buffers in reducing sediment loads at a watershed scale.

With the addition of this AGNPS Buffer Utility Feature  technology to the USDA model, researchers and watershed conservation managers can evaluate the placement of riparian buffers, track pollution loads to their source, and assess water quality and ecosystem services improvements across their watersheds.

Riparian buffers and other vegetative cover, such as filter strips, are considered an important, effective, and efficient conservation practice that has been shown to protect ecosystem services at a local level. However, their full impact on a watershed-scale is still subject to ongoing research.

 

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.