USC Citizens for Land Stewardship
Conservation and stewardship of land and natural resources in Upper St. Clair

Riparian Buffers

by Jeff Wagner

More and more people are turning their attention to the rivers and streams that run through their communities looking to them as sources of recreation, education and aesthetic enjoyment. Along with that attention are programs oriented at improving conditions around these waterways and water quality within the commonwealth. In these efforts to improve or restore our waterways one idea stands out clearly as a relatively simple but effective tool: riparian buffers.

Derived from the Latin ripa meaning bank, riparian refers to the area associated with the bank of a river or other body of water. A riparian buffer is simply an area or band of vegetation on and near the shore of a body of water. Because vegetation uses water and nutrients, puts down roots, and provides cover, it functions to slow down surface water, catch and hold sediments, absorb nutrients, and help regulate the temperature of the water. Additionally, riparian vegetation can serve as important habitat to plants and wildlife.

For most of the residents in western Pennsylvania, rivers and streams represent the vast majority of water bodies they will encounter locally. It may seem inevitable that some sort of vegetation will grow along a stream but often the amount, quality, and type of vegetation that exists is less than ideal. Sometimes the bank of the stream is so badly eroded and undercut that vegetation can not establish successfully. Sometimes woody vegetation is intentionally removed from the streamside and without the stability provided by deep roots, banks can be washed completely away during high water. In many parts of the state, cattle cause considerable damage to riparian areas by eating and trampling vegetation. Why are riparian areas so degraded? One reason is the simple lack of understanding of the importance of riparian areas to the health of a stream.

Fortunately, many programs are focusing on the maintenance and establishment of riparian buffers. These range from those like the Small Watershed Program grants administered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and focused toward farmers and local groups to the EPA 319 program in which CLS and the township are involved with the McLaughlin Run project. A quick guide to programs and other information related to riparian buffers is Pennsylvania Stream Releaf– a publication from the Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Water Quality Management (1998).

Many of CLS’s programs and efforts are directly linked with water quality. Our involvement with the Rivers Conservation Planning Program for the Chartiers Creek Watershed, our application and work on streambank stabilization for McLaughlin Run, and our planting on the slopes below the Morton Fields add pieces to the puzzle of improved water quality in our watershed. Modifying the well-known adage – think Globally, act locally; CLS is thinking regionally and acting locally.