Riparian Buffers

"Riparian buffer" refers to the vegetated area of land adjacent to a pond, lake, stream, creek, river, or wetland. Riparian areas form the transition between the aquatic and terrestrial environment. Preserving and restoring riparian buffers are among the most effective techniques used to protect and enhance the quality of groundwater, surface water and wildlife habitats.

Riparian buffers include areas of trees, shrubs and other vegetation adjacent to a body of water, and help maintain the integrity of stream channels and reduce the impact of pollution by filtering out sediments, nutrients and other chemicals. Buffers also supply food, cover and thermal protection to fish and other wildlife. Riparian buffers also protect waterways from the impact of human activities such as farming, grazing, lumbering, mining and development. This vegetation intercepts polluted and sediment-laden stormwater running off the land surface before it reaches the water body. Buffers are most critical in watershed headwater areas and smaller first and second order streams. Buffers along the wider downstream portions of a watershed are important, especially for fisheries and wildlife habitat, but will have proportionately less impact on water quality.

Historically, forest and riparian buffers protected most of the streams and creeks in the County. Deforestation associated with agriculture, industry, and urban expansion over the past 300 years has drastically reduced the extent of streambanks protected by a buffer. This tool describes techniques local municipalities can use to create new buffers, as well as preserve and maintain existing buffers.


Riparian buffers along streams provide the following critical environmental functions:


The following limitations are associated with the implementation of riparian buffers at the local municipal level:

How To Use This Tool

There are a variety of ways to preserve and protect riparian buffers during normal land use activities as well as during the land development process. Municipalities can manage stream corridors and their buffers through both non-regulatory and regulatory processes. Active planning and involvement by the local municipal government can be very effective in conserving this critical component of the natural environment.

Non-regulatory Techniques: Municipal comprehensive planning, including open space and recreation planning, is the most direct process for establishing municipal conservation efforts. These plans can contain maps, inventories and descriptions of the streams and riparian areas in a municipality, and goals and objectives for their conservation. Acquisition of riparian lands and/or conservation easements by the municipality can be an important part of implementing such plans. Municipalities can then work to restore and maintain buffers along their own riparian property. Both active and passive recreational activities can be integrated into riparian buffer areas. The Chester County Board of Commissioners is currently providing funding through the Heritage Park and Open Space Municipal Grant Program for greenway projects.

Municipalities may request "riparian easements" from the developer. This easement gives the township and its representatives access to the property to create and maintain buffer areas. Municipal governments can also cooperate with the Chester County Conservation District and local watershed protection groups to help inform riparian landowners about best management practices that protect buffers. Municipalities can also encourage landowners to sell or donate riparian conservation easements to a land trust, and provide funds and/or in-kind assistance for local stream restoration projects.

Other non-regulatory activities for conserving riparian buffers in which local municipalities can participate include:

Regulatory Techniques: Municipalities can provide for the health, safety and welfare of their communities by regulating land use activities to preserve and protect riparian buffers and other critical resources. For example, some municipalities in Chester County regulate the intensity and amount of logging or tree removal that can occur on private property, particularly along riparian areas. Property owners can be required to submit conservation or silviculture plans to the municipality for approval before substantial land disturbance or tree removal operations commence.

Some riparian buffers are protected by existing regulations. For example, activities within floodplain areas adjacent to streams and other water bodies are strictly regulated by state and federal agencies. Wetlands are protected by state and federal law and sometimes by local ordinances. Some riparian buffers may be at least partially protected through existing local ordinances that restrict or prohibit land development on steep slopes or limit disturbance of woodlands.

Municipalities can employ a variety of regulatory techniques to preserve riparian buffers and other environmentally sensitive lands. The Riparian Corridor Conservation District is a very comprehensive approach that can be incorporated into a local zoning ordinance.


Related Reference

Riparian Buffer Width, Vegetative Cover, and Nitrogen Removal Effectiveness: A Review of the Current Science and Regulations. EPA/600/R-05/118 October 2005 by Paul M. Mayer, Steven K. Reynolds, Jr., Timothy J. Canfield. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development, National Risk Management Research Laboratory

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