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Riparian Buffer Zones

Updated on May 18, 2009

If you are fortunate enough to have a stream running along or across your property, it is important to educate yourself about the basics of riparian management.

The Benefits of Riparian Buffer Zones

Maintaining a healthy riparian buffer zone provides many benefits to you and the environment. Well designed riparian buffers protect the water quality of the stream by absorbing sediment and pollutants. In fact, riparian buffers can absorb 60% or more of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants commonly found in runoff from agricultural fields.

Riparian buffers zones also improve wildlife habitat by providing food, shelter, and travel corridors for many species, including deer, game birds and more. Streamside trees and other vegetation provide shade, cooling the water and improving habitat for fish, amphibians, and other aquatic and semi-aquatic animals.

Many plants that provide food and shelter for wildlife also offer economic benefits for humans, such as fruit, nuts, and lumber, as well as aesthetic appeal. Carefully managed grazing can also be added in some riparian zones.

A poorly managed riparian zone. Photo by
A poorly managed riparian zone. Photo by

Designing a Riparian Buffer

The ideal width of a riparian zone depends on its function. The width of riparian zones is measure in one direction, starting from the edge of the water.

If you are interested primarily in preventing erosion, a 50 foot riparian zone is probably adequate. This is wide enough for most sediments to be trapped and absorbed.

In order to remove pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemical pollutants, a minimim of 66 feet is required.

Most experts put the ideal width of a riparian buffer zone for maximum stream health and water quality at 100-150 feet.

If you are interested in providing a corridor for wildlife habitat, a 300 foot buffer is recommended.

Local conditions also affect the ideal width of riparian buffers. For example, especially steep streambanks may reuire wider buffer zones than shallower ones in order to reduce erosion and runoff problems.

Within the total width of a riparian buffer zone are three distinct zones. The width can be changed by increasing the width devoted to any one of these three zones.

The first zone is streamside. Zone 1 should include a minimum of about 30 feet of large trees (4-5 rows), as well as dense plantings of native shrubs and ground covers to stabilize the stream banks themselves. (Contrary to popular belief, grass does not effectively stabilize stream banks.) The first row or two of trees should be fast growing, wet tolerent trees such as cottonwoods or willow, which will quickly shade and stabilize the stream banks. Outer layers can be slower growing hardwoods such as oaks, walnuts, hickories, and other good nut and lumber producing trees.

The second zone should consist of a much narrower (at least 12 feet) strip of shrubs and small trees. Native flowering or fruit-producing shrubs and trees such as dogwood, chokecherry, and wild plum are good choices.

Zones 1 and 2 are particularly important for flood control and wildlife habitat.

Zone 3 should consist of at least 20-25 feet of unmowed native warm season grasses and perennials. Switchgrass is an especially good choice in many areas of the United States. This strip is actually the most important for preventing erosion and water pollution. The majority of sediments and pollutants are absorbed here before they even reach zones 1 and 2.

Economic Incentives

The United States Conservation Reserve Program provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers interested in creating riparian buffer zones adjacent to streams on their property.

A beautiful riparian forest, by digitalart2
A beautiful riparian forest, by digitalart2

Learn More

To learn more about designing a riparian buffer zone suitable for your area, contact your state extension office.

Iowa and Connecticut have especially helpful information:


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    • crystolite profile image


      7 years ago from Houston TX

      Nice and informative article.thanks for sharing.

    • greensnob profile image


      8 years ago

      This was informative. New turf, riparian buffer zone! The digitalArt2 enhanced photo makes 'riparian' look like an Avatarian world.

    • paul_gibsons profile image


      8 years ago from Gibsons, BC, Canada

      very nice article. Actually in my daily practice,especially with smaller streams, I tend to reverse zones 1 and 2... large trees can provide substantial shade and protection but can equally shade out completely and. when they do eventually fall, tear a stream bank to bits.. For small streams large trees are usually much too large to provide complexity through large woody debris (essential for salmon) and "span" the stream when they fall. Moved back initially, they will eventually provide in-stream large woody debris and habitat complexity. For very wide streams the opposite applies of course.


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