Increasing riparian buffers to improve state's water quality

A cornfield underwater due to flooding. Credit: Adobe Stock, Robert Hoetink #123449964All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Chesapeake Bay is being polluted, and Pennsylvania is a big reason why, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. To identify ways to reduce Pennsylvania’s impact on the bay, Penn State researchers led a workshop to identify ways to accelerate the planting of riparian buffers, a known solution to this issue.

With 86,000 miles of streams flowing through Pennsylvania, much of that water ends up in the Chesapeake. And if that stream is near farmland, runoff from those farms makes its way into the streams, impacting local waterways and eventually sending sediment and excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen into the bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Credit: KMusser, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0All Rights Reserved.

Sediment and these two nutrients contribute to troubling ecological issues. In local streams, they impact fish populations and stream health. In the Chesapeake Bay, excess nutrients contribute to algae blooms that are deoxygenating the bay’s ecosystem and wreaking havoc on marine life and water quality. This situation is not unique to the Chesapeake. It is showing up worldwide.

For years, riparian buffers have been used to improve water quality in both local streams and in larger watersheds. A riparian buffer is a section of land that sits between farmland and bodies of water. They include hearty vegetation that can withstand extreme weather, prevent sediment from going into streams and absorb nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen.

“The Chesapeake Bay Program identifies riparian buffers as one mechanism to improve water quality,“ said Lara Fowler, the Institutes of Energy and the Environment’s (IEE) assistant director for outreach and engagement and senior lecturer at Penn State Law. “The program’s ideal is to have 35-foot wide forested buffers. The goal for Pennsylvania is to add 95,000 acres [approximately 22,300 miles] to the state’s streams and rivers by 2025.”

This has Penn State researchers and extension staff working on improving Pennsylvania’s watershed by educating communities on the benefits of buffers, normalizing the practice of planting them and reexamining the methods people are using to increase the presence of buffers in Pennsylvania.

However, planting 22,300 miles of buffers in the state is costly. Moreover, convincing landowners they should plant them is difficult. The workshop participants identified ways to make buffers more workable and economically viable for landowners and communities.

Miles of Riparian Forest Buffers Planted in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, 1996-2015. Credit: Chesapeake Bay ProgramAll Rights Reserved.

According to Fowler, Pennsylvania is drastically behind its goal for creating buffers. When the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement was created in 2014, the goal was for Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia to collectively restore 900 miles of riparian buffers per year. Only in 2002 did the partners meet or exceed its goal. From 1996 through 2015, Pennsylvania averaged just over 350 miles of buffer planting a year.

“We need a radically different approach to thinking about the implementation of this,” Fowler said. “It needs to be in the best interest of a farmer or landowner so they can see an economic value.”

For example, a corn producer who plants a crop next to a stream may be losing $500 an acre due to more severe storms that worsen flooding in that area. A goal of the workshop was to innovate ways for farmers to avoid the loss and start to gain economic benefits.

“If I plant my buffer with willow, willow does just fine in a flood,” Fowler said. “You could then harvest that willow and create products such as poultry bedding, erosion socks or biofuels and get paid, providing a better revenue stream than farming along a stream. While not a forested buffer, increasing buffers of any type helps address water quality goals while potentially providing other local benefits as well.”

The key is understanding local problems and working closely with the community to assist with local issues as well as to improve water quality in the bay, according to Fowler. This might include working with a farmer to move a barn because it is in danger of falling into a river or developing projects to keep cows out of streams to reduce disease and water quality impacts.

“Part of it is how you help someone understand that their most vulnerable areas are also the most ecologically sensitive areas,” Fowler said. “By solving smaller local challenges, we are slowly making progress in addressing the issues in both local watersheds and the bay.”

One issue that has been identified is that the programs which incentivize the installation of buffers do not always resonate with their target audience.

“If you have an entire set of federal programs aimed at ecosystem restoration and you are using federal payments to incentivize it and 25 percent of the population is Amish, you have a program that doesn’t fit,” said Fowler, who added the Amish, due to their religious beliefs, do not receive support from federal programs.

Fowler stressed that whatever the solution, it must be something that can be implemented quickly and can be scaled up just as fast to meet the impending 2025 goal.

“The goal of the workshop was to have implementable science that makes a difference as well as to normalize riparian buffers in agriculture,” Fowler said. “And if we can figure out how to make a difference locally, Pennsylvania has the potential for guiding how the world can address what is a critical global question.”

The workshop was held in November with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC). The Chesapeake Bay Program is a partnership made up of federal and state agencies, local governments, non-profit organizations and academic institutions. The workshop was facilitated by Fowler and Tom Richard, director of IEE. Veronika Vazhnik and Stephanie Herbstritt, both Penn State doctoral students in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, were key organizers.

Following the workshop, the workshop’s advisory committee plans to distill the lessons learned into a workshop report for STAC. Results from the workshop will help inform the Chesapeake Bay Program and ultimately the governors of the participating states. Materials from the workshop, including a preliminary webinar, are available online.

Last Updated December 12, 2018