This is What a Well Functioning Riparian Buffer Looks Like

There are many definitions of riparian buffer.  In this post and the video linked here we offer the elements of a well functioning buffer and show what they look like.  Riparian buffers are one of the most effective Best Management Practices to abate non-point source water pollution.  The word “riparian” comes from Latin and means “adjacent to water”.

Dr. Bern Sweeney with author in one of the labs at the Stroud Water Research Center.

Dr. Bern Sweeney, Senior Research Scientist, with author in one of the labs at the Stroud Water Research Center.  Click on the picture to see what well functioning buffers look like.

I learned about buffers and effective buffer widths when I worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service but I did not know how important native tree leaves were to the aquatic ecosystem until I heard Dr. Bern Sweeney talk about his research at the Stroud Water Research Center.  Did  you know that macro invertebrates are “leaf” specific?  Visit their website to learn more about it.

Our farm is in the Middle River watershed – at the beginning of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.  It is my belief that if we had well functioning riparian buffers along all our streams we could de-list our River from the state’s dirty water’s list or the TMDL.  Farmers have been installing riparian buffers for a long time and that is partly why agriculture is half-way in doing it’s part to restore the Chesapeake Bay.  They have done this through voluntary programs like the Conservation Reserve Program and each state’s Best Management Practices programs.  These are funded through the Farm Bill, EPA, states and non-profit organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Author with Spencer Thompson of Conservation Services and VDOF Forester Patti Nylander. Mocomp Farm, eight year old riparian tree planting.

Author with Spencer Thompson of Conservation Services and VDOF Forester Patti Nylander. Mocomp Farm, eight year old riparian tree planting.

Here’s my definition of a riparian buffer: A vegetated area adjacent to a hydric feature capable of reducing the impact of adjacent land uses and providing the hydric feature with sufficient inputs to support a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

Riparian buffers need to be wide enough to do the job which means the plants in the buffer take up or filter out pollutants entering the buffer.  Scientists believe the minimum width needs to be somewhere between thirty-five and one-hundred feet;  this is on both sides of the stream or hydric feature.  It needs to be stocked with native trees with a sufficient density to create canopy closure and Livestock must be excluded from the buffer area.

Contact your local USDA office, local Soil and Water Conservation District or me to find out more about riparian buffers.


  1. Why can’t you just say water (hydric feature? really?) Nice post.

  2. Bobby, thanks for this clear and compelling summary that captures the role trees play in enabling streams to do critical work for society – cleaning our water.
    And zany is definitely the new brainy!

  3. Joe McCue says:

    Bobby – As a buffer advocate myself, I want to thank you for being such an enthusiastic buffer spokesman. Your trees look great, and the video is very informative.

  4. Bobby,
    You STREAMlined the meaning of Riparian buffer.

    We all need a tuffer buffer.

  5. David Bogue says:

    Well done! Love the video!

  6. Scott McNally says:

    Great post! If someone really does not have 30 feet of land they can remove from production and plant a buffer, what are they to do? Is a five foot buffer still better than nothing? Also I have heard that adding a buffer provides an area for animals to forage which decreases the amount of crop lost to these creatures. On the other side I have heard individuals claim that buffers increase the overall density of wild animals in the area which inevitably leads to greater amounts of crop lost from animals. What do you think about this?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Scott, thanks for posting your comment. Yes, any buffer is better than no buffer at all. Increasing the biodiversity of land benefits everyone including the farmer. I know for a fact that groundhogs love buffers and so does my tractor because I don’t have as many holes in the field. I’ve heard the deer argument but the fact is biodiversity increases pollinator habitat as well as an insectary. You could argue that the beneficial insects increased crop production because they kept insect pests under control. I can’t think of a single reason for not wanting to increase biodiversity. And think of all the other benefits of stream buffers….

  7. Emily Lawrence says:

    If a conventional farmer were to make sure to leave a good riparian buffer of 35 to 100 feet along a stream going through their property, would that be enough to ensure that the water would not be contaminated by any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Emily, that is a good question. Riparian forest buffers are the one of the best practices we have to filter out nutrients and other pollutants; however, good land use on the rest of the farm is essential as well. I am confident that a 35 foot forest buffer would be sufficient as long as the erosion rate up slope were at or below the “tolerance” level of soil erosion and there were no gullies or channels through the buffer. Is this conventional farmer farming on the contour, does he/she use crop rotation with perennials, do they use cover crops and leave last year’s residue on the field? These are practices that help reduce soil erosion and increase the infiltration of water into the soil.

  8. Kelly Lecko says:

    Emily, I like your thoughts about conventional ag incorporating these buffers. To me it seems you are thinking this could be a baby-step in the right direction, or a mitigation effort; ex: if farmers do not want to switch to organic ag or even a permacultural philosophy, perhaps they can compromise and build a riparian buffer.
    Bobby- once the initial land is designated as a buffer, and native vegetation brought in to start the process of re-vegetation, how much further management is involved? Would it be simple for a farmer to put in a chunk of work at the start, and then let Nature do the rest? I imagine that succession will do her work sufficiently, but there are probably things that a human could do to speed things up.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Kelly, thanks for posting. We have a lot of experience with putting a lot of money up front to do a superb job of planting a new forest into sod and just walking away from it to let nature take its course. We have found that it doesn’t work most of the time. There are a lot of things working against the “jump start”. First of all we are inserting a forest species into a grass ecosystem. The fungi and bacteria and other soil biota are foreign to the seedling. Then there are countless invasive species that are aggressive and eager to fill a niche like autumn olive and canada thistle. Meadow voles are also a threat to the new seedling – a grassland mammal eager to destroy tree seedlings to perpetuate their grassland ecosystem. So, we have concluded that we humans need to do more management during the first five years of a newly planted forest into a hay/pasture ecosystem to nurture it along such as controlling invasives and making sure tree shelter stakes are properly functioning.

  9. Shannon says:

    Hi Bobby

    Thanks for sharing the knowledge! I’m wondering if someone already has a buffer area, but with smaller vegetation and shrubs, would you still want to plant bigger trees within it even though they will eventually keep sunlight from the little guys growing there? I mean, are canopy closure and the height of the plant important for the buffering process, or could something like shrub cover do the job too?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Shannon, thanks. Good question. If the shrubs, hopefully native, are already there then the process has already jumped forward and maybe we don’t need to do anything. The goal is to have a mature, native forest along the streams here in this part of the world. Canopy closure is an indication that the trees are established and that the grassland ecosystem is on the way out. Shade is one of the important elements of a forest buffer because of the cooling effect is has on the water – cooler water holds more oxygen. The leaves also provide the food/energy for the aquatic ecosystem.

  10. Sam Taggart says:

    Hi Bobby,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post and watching the video. Riparian buffer zone creation sounds like a very promising management strategy for farmers to reduce their pollution runoff loads into local streams and rivers. I learned a bit about the benefits of riparian buffer zones while taking a Stream Ecology course at UVA’s Mountain Lake Biological Station down near Blacksburg, VA so I am excited to learn more about it!

    My question is – besides native tree species – what other types of native riparian vegetation might farmers consider planting to augment detoxification by the riparian buffer? Are there other types of plants that help to absorb/remove pollution from the stream? Are ferns detoxifiers? We have a TON of ferns around our small creeks and streams up here at AMS.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Wow, you have studied at the Mountain Lake Bio Station? That rocks! I have been there and hiked all the trails around there. About your questions…native trees implies a forest and a forest as we ecologist know it includes all the other species including ferns, rushes, sub-canopy species, fungi etc. that make up a healthy ecosystem. The trees are just the “featured” species that represent the whole of what a forest really is. All of that and I mean ALL of that drives the detoxifying ability of stream ecosystem.

  11. Hey Bobby,

    Thanks for the informative post and video. What would you say are some ideal species to plant in a riparian buffer in this region?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Aaron, thanks. There are many native species to choose from. Some of my favorites include: Sycamore, Black Walnut, Swamp White Oak, Green Ash, False Indigo Bush, Hackberry, Red Maple, Alder, Red Osier Dogwood and River Birch.

  12. Emily S. says:

    Hey Bobby!

    Thanks for the informative post. I was wondering how long riparian barriers have been used in agriculture? Is this relatively recent (since the beginning of industrial ag)? Or has it been used for much longer?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Emily, thanks for your post. I am sure cultures have known about buffers a long time but we really didn’t start promoting them in USDA until about 1990. USDA started funding the practice in 1998.

  13. Nick Faircloth says:

    Hey Bobby,

    This post was really interesting. I always thought of riperian buffers as merely a plant border along a body of water, but never considered the micro- and macrorganisms, fungi and other biota that were also doing their part in the natural filter. I imagine this purification process is similar to what goes on in wetland habitats? I grew up in Southern Delaware, an region filled with inland bays and wetlands and which is bordered by the Delaware Bay and River and the Atlantic Ocean. These bodies of water recieve a wide variety of pollutants, from industrial waste to human waste and agricultural runoff everyday and, growing up there, I heard a lot about protecting water resources. Needless to say, discussions of riperian buffers and cleaning up waterways hits close to home.

    I am left wondering, however, if these filtering ecosystems are toxic specific. I can understand how biological activity might help to break down fecal coliform bacteria, excess nutrients in agricultural runnoff, and other, “biological,” pollutants, but can these habitats also work to filter out heavy metals and synthetic chemicals? Is that something you worry about here?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Nick, thanks for your post. As you might know toxics is a huge subject. Streams with forest buffers are 8 to 10 times more capable of detoxifying itself than treeless banks. Which toxics I’m not sure of but Stroud Water Research Center in PA does a lot of research on it. Here’s a link to their site:

  14. Hi there Bobby (& Shannon),
    As a follow-up to your answer I was curious about the food/energy provided by the vegetation in riparian buffer. Are there any other inputs (in addition to leaves) that make riparian buffers beneficial to the aquatic ecosystem?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thea, thanks for your question. There are so many other inputs. It’s a web of life. Think of the tree itself as a whole ecosystem. What’s involved? Insects, birds, fungi, bacteria, xylem and phloem, nutrients, soil, sunlight etc. Then think of the shrub next to the tree, lots going on there too. Then broaden out to the stream. Insects, fish, caddis flies, King Fishers etc. A branch falling in the water becomes fish habitat. We could go on and on. There’s an old saying, “Thou cannot stir a twig without troubling a star”. It’s the tip of the ecological iceberg isn’t it?

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