A streamside forest buffer (often referred to as a riparian forest buffer) is an area of vegetation that is maintained along the shore of a water body to protect stream channels and banks. Buffers can reduce the pollutants entering a stream, lake or pond by trapping, filtering and converting sediments, nutrients and other chemicals in runoff from surrounding lands.

The following video from StormwaterPA offers an introductory explanation of riparian buffers and how restoration can protect the quality of surface water sources:


Riparian Buffers from GreenTreks Network on Vimeo.

Get the full story at StormwaterPA


This excerpt from another StormwaterPA video, A Healthy Wissahickon, We All Have a Part to Play, provides a brief overview of the Pennsylvania landscape, the value of preserving “buffers” and way they work to improve water quality and ecological health.


A Healthy Wissahickon: Protecting and Restoring Natural Buffers from GreenTreks Network on Vimeo.

Forested streamside buffers are the most beneficial type of buffer along waterways because they provide multiple benefits: they improve source water quality for drinking water and provide ecological benefits, including food, cover and protection from temperature changes for fish and wildlife. Forest buffers filter pollutants, cool water temperatures, help prevent stream bank erosion, and provide stormwater management and flood control.

Riparian forest buffers reduce the negative impact of some pesticides and directly provide organic food needed to maintain high biological productivity and diversity in the adjoining stream. Streamside forest buffers provide significant flood reduction and storage functions within the watershed. Finally, the protection of existing riparian forest buffers coupled with the establishment of new riparian forest buffers can have a significant impact on moderating the affects of climate change on aquatic ecosystems, particularly in our headwater streams.

The following video looks at the benefits of maintaining forested buffers as part of a “treatment train” in an agricultural setting. While it focuses on protecting the water flowing from Pennsylvania’s streams to the Chesapeake Bay, the message is clear: forest buffers protect water quality, and that means healthier source water supplies.

Streamside Forest Buffers: Improving Water Quality from GreenTreks Network on Vimeo.

Get the full story at StormwaterPA


Check out this video for a lesson in taking a watershed view, and the importance of protecting buffers on headwater streams:


Project Headwaters, A Watershed Approach from GreenTreks Network on Vimeo.

For more details on the project, check out Project Headwaters on StormwaterPA.

More Information

Pennsylvania’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a highly successful program that helps with the restoration of forest buffers.  It pays 100% of the cost of planting forest buffers, as well as an annual financial payment to the landowner over the life of the contract (usually up to 15 years). It also covers some of the cost of the maintenance that is essential in the first several years after trees are planted, so that landowners can hire a contractor to assist with maintenance. More details on CREP.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)’s Streamside (Riparian) Forest Buffer Guidance

Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Conservation Education website

Comments of Harry Campbell, PA Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to the PA House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee: The Importance of Streamside Forests for Pennsylvania’s Most Sensitive and Pristine Streams.

Stroud Preserve Watersheds National Monitoring Project report, from the Stroud Water Research Center: Mitigation of agricultural nonpoint pollution by a reforested riparian buffer in the Mid-Atlantic Piedmont

From the Journal of the American Water Resources Association: How Many Trees Does It Take to Protect a Stream? Newbold, J. D., S. Herbert, B. W. Sweeney, P. Kiry, and S. J. Alberts. 2010. 1-12. DOI: 10.1111 ⁄ j.1752-1688.2010.00421.x. Request PDF.

From the Trust for Public Land and the American Water Works Association’s Water Protection Series: Protecting the Source: Land Conservation and the Future of America’s Drinking Water

From the Delaware Riverkeeper Network: Adopt-A-Buffer Toolkit: Monitoring and Maintaining Restoration Projects (.pdf)

American Rivers Report: Where Rivers Are Born: The Scientific Imperative for Defending Small Streams and Wetlands

Other references worth a look

Environmental Law Institute - James M. McElfish, Jr., Rebecca L. Kihslinger, and Sandra S. Nichols.  Planner’s Guide to Wetland Buffers for Local Governments is based on ELI’s detailed examination of more than 50 enacted wetland buffer ordinances around the nation and nine model ordinances, as well as several hundred scientific studies and analyses of buffer performance. 2008.

Jones, K. L., G. C. Poole, J. L. Meyer, W. Bumback, and E. A. Kramer. 2006. Quantifying expected ecological response to natural resource legislation: a case study of riparian buffers, aquatic habitat, and trout populations. Ecology and Society 11:15.

Jordan, T. E., D. L. Correll, and D. E. Weller. 1993. Nutrient interception by a riparian forest receiving inputs from adjacent cropland. Journal of Environmental Quality 22:467-473.

Mayer, P.M. et al., Riparian Buffer Width, Vegetative Cover, and Nitrogen Removal Effectiveness: A Review of Current Science and Regulations, Cincinnati, OH, 2005, EPA/600/R-05/118.

Meyer, J.L. et al., Where Rivers Are Born: The Scientific Imperative for Defending Small Streams and Wetlands, Washington, DC, American Rivers, Sierra Club, 2003

Seavy, N.E. et al., Why Climate Change Makes Riparian Restoration More Important than Ever: Recommendations for Practice and Research, Journal of Ecological Restoration, September, 2009.

Sweeney, B.W., Streamside Forests and the Physical, Chemical, and Trophic Characteristics of Piedmont Streams in Eastern North America, Water Science Technology Journal, 1993.

Sweeney, B.W. et al., Riparian Deforestation, Stream Narrowing and Loss of Stream Ecosystem Services, Pennsylvania Natural Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Volume 101, No. 39, 2004, pp. 14132-14137.

Sweeney, B.W. and Blaine, J.G., Resurrecting the In-Stream Side of Riparian Forests. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, Issue 136, 2007, pp. 17-27.

Center for Watershed Protection, Better Site Design: A Handbook for Changing Development Rules in Your Community. Ellicott City, MD. 1998.
394-5600-001 / November 27, 2010 / Page 103

Comments are closed.