I recently attended a “Stream and Buffer Ecology Workshop” at the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pennsylvania. Stroud is a world-class research facility for fresh water science. This year their “Moorhead Environmental Complex” was awarded a “Platinum LEED” rating, which is the nation’s highest certification for green construction.
The Stroud Water Research Center is by led by perhaps one of the world’s leading scientist in fresh water stream ecology: Dr. Bern Sweeney. He received the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2006.
He and his team of scientists helped write the book on why forested stream buffers are so important. I was fortunate to spend a whole day with Dr. Sweeney and his team.
I came away from the experience refueled with enthusiasm for restoring the ecology of our streams. Metaphorically speaking I went to the riparian buffer oracle, asked what the answer to life was and he said, “Keep planting native trees along the streams”.
A stream surrounded by a forested buffer of native trees not only filters out up-gradient pollutants like nitrogen, phosphorous, sediment and pathogens but it is also is capable of detoxifying itself from anthropogenic influences by a factor of 2 to 8.
Microbial activity in the stream is a function of food (energy). Leaves, native leaves, from trees along the stream banks supply this food source. This is the bottom of the aquatic food chain. No trees, no leaves. No leaves, no microbes. If there are no microbes, the rest of the food chain for a healthy stream ecosystem cannot be built.
Temperature is also a huge factor and according to research, an increase in temperature of only a few degrees, greatly affects the presence of both leaf eating and algae eating organisms. Dr. Sweeney stressed that many of these organisms “live on the edge”. He stated that mayfly nymphs for example thrive at 68 degrees F. but perish at 70 degrees. With a warming planet this is all the more reason to plant trees along stream banks.
Leaves from non-native trees won’t work. Research shows that at least some leaf-eating macroinvertebrates are leaf specific. Even within a genus certain leaf eaters prefer certain leaves. Stroud scientists could find no macroinvertebrates that would eat multi-flora rose leaves; furthermore, multi-flora rose leaves were toxic to mayflies (L. cupida)
Bottom line: native trees along our streams here in the temperate, eastern United States, provide the fuel for aquatic ecosystems to function and the cooling mechanism (shade) to keep the temperature of the water in the stream below lethal limits.
So, what we have been doing all these years: Excluding livestock from the streams and planting native hardwood trees along the banks of the streams, is emphatically, the right thing to do and we need to do a lot more. Stream side forested buffers not only filter out incoming pollutants from poor land use, they foster an aquatic ecosystem that is capable of processing pollution as well.
Dr. Sweeney said, “A diverse ecosystem gives the stream increased horsepower to detoxify itself”.
While Dr. Sweeney and other scientists continue their important research on fresh water ecology the message is crystal clear for us field conservationists; steam side forested buffers are imperative to restoring the streams in our communities and for a restored Chesapeake Bay. Let’s continue our work with renewed enthusiasm.
For more information on how you can help, click on the hot-links above or shoot me an email; I’ll be glad to help you find an answer.
The Virginia Working Landscapes is hosting a riparian conservation workshop on June 22 at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. I will be one of the speakers there along with Stroud Scientist Dr. Dave Arscott. There is still room so if you want to come please register here.
Good for you, Bobby.
I hope we all live to see reforested
Thanks for stopping by Michael. Hey I am hearing Dickcissels everyday I drive past your riparian buffer.
Thanks for finding the get-up-and-go to fill your enthusiasm gas tank, so we can catch the spillover!
Any thoughts for the people like us whose land drains into but does not abut the river? We spend a lot of time caring for native trees and plants we have planted specifically for wildlife, but it would be wonderful to know we are helping water quality at the same time. Our place is perhaps a third of a mile as the crow flies from,and higher than,the Middle River.
Carol, you are so caring. You can bet you are indeed helping the Middle River and the Chesapeake Bay. All the water leaving your land eventually gets into the Middle River and all those trees, shrubs and native plants you and George have planted are used by the riparian species. How are your Quail doing?
Bobby — I had no idea that leaves were so important to the stream food chain. Ecology is a fascinating subject and it’s empowering to learn how everything in nature fits together, including humans. Thanks for your work and thanks for your blogging.
I am unbelievably sad to report that I have not seen or heard the quail for about 2 weeks. They have been such an important part of my life for over 6 months and they even mated in sight of our kitchen window maybe 3 weeks ago. I still look and listen constantly although I fear the worst. I am going to write a short story about my experiences with them and will send it to you.
Carol, once they have eggs and babies they do not call. They may be very busy feeding their young. Let’s hope so.
I’m glad to hear you got a chance to attend this workshop! It sounds like it was a great and exciting experience!
This post has been incredibly educational, thank you. I feel that in some areas a social stigma against the presence of leave and macroinvertebrates in and along the stream bed has been established because people have become so focused on immediate anesthetics, which – in my experience – seems to be a major contributor in preventing the application of many naturalistic practices.
Thanks Brian. Good insight.
Bobby, I suspect that too few people in the watershed understand the beneficial contributions of forested stream buffers. As with so many issues, education is critical. But knowledge without a plan to put that knowledge to work is wasted. Hopefully we can start by convincing riparian landowners that the least they can/should do is to plant trees and fence out livestock. A tough task but a worthy one.
David, thanks for stopping by. Yes, if we can just get those darn cows out!
Wish I could get more enthusiasm promoted here in Michigan, especially by some of our country drain commissioners. We did one sided construction wherever possible for county drains in Ohio where I started my career 30 years ago. That concept seems to have been lost with the fencerow to fencerow mentality we have in this area now. Oh, I almost forgot, the fencerows are being eliminated also. It is the worst situation I have seen around here since the 1970’s.
Jim, sounds like you need some tree planters up there. I remember when we were putting in a lot of contour strips…taking out a fencerow was awful. We used to make the farmer mitigate the loss of this important wildlife feature of the landscape.
Another nice post, thanks for your reporting and insights.
Bobby, we at Stroud Center were delighted you attended. I think you hit the nail on the head with your insights. We don’t expect Holsteins to do their best milk production when fed pigweed and left in 100 degree heat. Stream organisms that make clean water also have preferred feeds and temperatures to optimize their productivity. Trees are critical to this in-stream community. Thanks also for citing Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s link to Dr. Sweeney and Stroud Cetner – they’ve been a long-time and effective partner in this work.
Keep up the great blogs!
David, thanks. We would not be where we are today without the dedication and leadership is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Stroud Water Research Center. The marriage of science and passion is imperative as we move forward. The fuel that Stroud supplies is the leaf litter in our stream of passion.