Streamside Forest Buffer Plantings Falter in Bay States

A March 10 Bay Journal article reported that the planting of streamside forest buffers on agricultural land is faltering despite a past history of success and increased spending by the United States Department of Agriculture.  Streamside or riparian forest buffers improve water quality and help reduce water pollution.   The buffers are also an important component of the State and local government efforts to reach their nitrogen reduction goals under their watershed implementation plans for the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load.

In a watershed with more than 180,000 miles of streams, of which only about 55 percent are estimated to be forested, it has always been recognized that significantly more forested buffers would be needed to restore stream health. Cleanup plans crafted by the states to meet cleanup goals collectively call for planting more than 15,000 additional miles of buffers by 2025.

But today, streamside forest planting efforts are faltering badly throughout the watershed, as shown in figures from the state-federal Bay Program partnership. Just 202 miles of forest buffers were planted throughout the Chesapeake’s 64,000-square-mile watershed last year, according to its Forestry Workgroup.

That’s the worst performance since 1998, when riparian forest planting initiatives were ramping up.

The article cited record-high prices for corn, wheat, and soybeans as making farmers more resistant installing the buffers on land that could be used for production.  Other reasons given for the decline included the high maintenance requirements on farmers, a shrinking pool of farmers who have not yet participated and may be willing, and the requirement that farmers commit to taking land out of production for at least 15 years.

The article listed several implications the reduced buffer plantings:

Forests provide a multitude of benefits besides serving as a last line of defense to keep nutrients and sediment out of streams. Tree roots hold back soil, preventing streambank erosion, and their branches shade the water, helping to maintain steady water temperatures. Fallen branches provide important stream habitat. And, fallen leaves provide food for aquatic insects that support the stream’s food web.

Making up for a shortfall in forest buffer plantings would require the implementation of large amounts of less-effective runoff control practices.