How Natural Vegetation Creates Stream Buffers to Protect Waterbodies from Stormwater Pollution (and how you can help build one!)

What is a stream buffer?Image result for riparian buffer

Stream (also called riparian) buffers are strips of trees and other vegetation that:

  • improve water quality by filtering pollutants from stormwater runoff such as oil, fertilizers, pesticides, and dog waste;
  • reduce flooding and erosion by stabilizing stream banks;
  • moderate stream temperature and sunlight, keeping fish and other aquatic life healthy;
  • provide nesting and foraging habitat for many species of birds and animals.

You can help stream buffers purify our water by planting native trees and bushes along your stream or ditch, especially if the bank is bare or eroding. If you already have trees or shrubs along your waterway, simply leave it alone!

Mowing, cutting, and removing buffer vegetation may be regulated in your area, so check with your local government before undertaking landscaping or other projects within 100 feet of any water conveyances. (Selective cutting of understory shrubs and scrub by hand is usually allowed in very small amounts, but it is better to let the vegetation continue its natural regeneration process, which will allow trees to mature, form a canopy, and prevent undergrowth naturally.)

Choosing Your Trees

It is always best to plant species that are native for in your area. In general, the following species are good choices for North Carolina Piedmont and Coastal Plain.

EVERGREEN (does not lose leaves and can provide visual screening)

  • Carolina Laurelcherry (Prunus caroliniana)
  • Wax Myrtle (Myrica serifera)
  • Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

DECIDUOUS (loses leaves in fall and can help regulate house sunlight and temperature)

  • Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Tag Alder (Alnus serrulata)
  • River Birch (Betula nigra)
  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

For more ideas, the NC State Stream Restoration Program lists species by region and suppliers and the NC Cooperative Extension suggests tree species for stream buffers. Also, this Tree Planting Pocket Guide for Stream Buffers (PDF) provides information on choosing trees, planting them, and maintaining them.

Planting Your Trees

Follow the simple steps in the diagram at right for planting your trees. Make sure you know how to care for your trees after you’ve planted them. The Tree Planting Pocket Guide (PDF) also has great tips on planting and caring for your new trees. NEVER apply fertilizer near streams or ditches.

Other Easy Things You Can Do

  1. Let areas next to a waterway or ditch go natural, even if it only has water in it some of the time.
  2. Just trim the undergrowth (leave the canopy) if you are worried about vermin or poison ivy.
  3. Don’t dump yard waste (leaves, grass clippings, etc.) in or near streams and ditches.
  4. Grass strips only need fertilizer if grass growth is very poor and soil tests indicate a need. Never apply fertilizer near or on open water.
  5. Mow any grass next to the buffer slightly higher than the rest of your grass. This extra height helps slow and filter the runoff that passes through.
  6. Check out our Yard Care page for more tips on what you can do around your house and yard to prevent water pollution and the negative effects of stormwater runoff, and do your part to help keep our water clean.

Additional Resources

Trees Tame Stormwater—Interactive Poster from the Arbor Day Foundation

Build a backyard rain garden or bio-retention basin!

Learn about invasive plant species

Frequently Asked Questions about Buffers

The NC Ecosystem Enhancement Program has these Guidelines for Riparian Buffer Restoration (PDF) that offer a great deal more information on this subject.

Leave a Reply