Riparian Buffers | Indiana Soil & Watershed Conservation
By Shelley Swearingen | August 26, 2020
Riparian buffers: what are they and why should Indiana farmers & landowners care? Simply put – it’s the area of land adjacent to a waterway. It turns out that preserving and encouraging plant life in these zones is an easy way to conserve Indiana’s streams, creeks, rivers, and lakes while improving soil quality.
These ‘buffers’ or ‘zones’ occur naturally and serve as a link between water-based ecosystems and land-based ecosystems. Over time, their presence has been eliminated for various reasons. Some farmers may remove the trees and plants to increase tillable land area or a landowner may remove vegetation to allow for easier water access. Whatever the reasoning may be, the removal of these trees and vegetation has a profound impact on all adjacent systems.
These zones are vital to improve and maintain water quality. A layer of forestation between a body of water and uplands acts as a filter and reduces pollutants. Plants & trees are able to prevent pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals from traveling into the water. An abundance of certain nutrients can have devastating effects to both people and livestock. For example, nitrates can cause blood diseases, birth defects, and cancer in humans and numerous ailments in cattle. Riparian zones also prevent bacteria and viruses, born from sewage or livestock operations, from entering waterways; these can cause any number of ailments: salmonellosis, anthrax, tuberculosis, tetanus, etc.
An additional benefit is the improvement to wildlife habitats. Indiana is home to many magnificent creatures. Riparian buffers create a home for bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons, river otters, mink, weasels, and the endangered Indiana Bat. If you’d like to help influence local wildlife, nesting homes can be placed within these zones. Duck and bat boxes are a great way to bring animals to the area.
For non-operating-landowners (NOLs), maintaining riparian zones on rented farm land gives the land versatility. By maintaining the natural resources present, wildlife will continue to inhabit. Hunters and naturists seek out these properties for recreation. The property can be leased out for additional income but may eventually be sold as recreational property at if the wildlife is active. Increased functionality and versatility to a property increases value.
Most importantly to farmers, riparian buffers keep top soil where it belongs – on your land! The vegetation traps sediment and captures runoff by slowing the water’s velocity and giving it time to absorb into the soil. This runoff is prevented from entering the waterway and flowing downstream which decreases channel erosion and gives the waterway better flow capacity. Better flow capacity within a waterway discourages flooding; the water is able to travel to another location much easier. The obvious adverse consequence to flooding is the destruction of property, but it also can destroy croplands’ ability to produce quality crops. Flooding carries nutrient rich top soil off of croplands and away, and it takes time and care to regain the correct chemical composition required for quality crops.
So…how do we fix this?
There are two ways for farmers and landowners to encourage riparian buffers: planting and natural regeneration. Some of the recommended tree species for Indiana riparian buffers are willow, river birch, sycamore, cottonwood, hackberry, sweet gum, green as, box elder, swamp white oak, swamp chestnut oak, etc. (It is important to note that the location of planting in regards to proximity to the water should be considered when selecting species.) By planting specific species of plant life, farmers could create additional income – certain fruit or nut bearing trees (like elderberry or walnut) are great options for riparian buffers. Planting is labor intensive and can be expensive, but allows a landowner/farmer to directly influence the aesthetic and ecological properties of the land. Natural regeneration, allowing the plant life to grow uninhibited, is the easier option of the two. However, it will take significantly longer for the zone to become established. To encourage growth within a riparian buffer, just portion off an area as ‘no-mow’. And while this is the easier and less expensive option, it will require monitoring. The buffer will require supervision and intervention (when needed) to ensure that non-native invasive species are not present. Non-native plants to monitor for include: Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, garlic mustard, and purple loosestrife. A list of native plants, trees, and shrubs can be found HERE.
Do conservation practices add value to the land?
Upkeep to a property can feel tedious and sometimes be expensive, but it’s prudent to remember that this is an investment. And while devoting cropland to vegetation may seem as though it will reduce profits, the increase in soil quality will add value to the land. Improved soil quality equals higher yields. Farmers, ranchers, foresters, and landowners can take simple incremental steps to maintain and grow their investments by instituting conservation practices. It’s possible to protect the environment while growing an investment – conservation efforts have been proven to improve soil quality which, in turn, drives land values.
These steps may seem daunting, but a little planning and preparation can make a world of difference in a few years’ time. The Natural Resources Conservation Service of Indiana has programs in place to help farmers, ranchers, and landowners. In addition to the NRCS programs, the USDA has local service centers if you need additional assistance. The US government has millions of dollars in grants and loans available to those willing to practice conservation.
Contact Johnny Klemme at (765) 427 -1619 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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