buffer zones & buffer strips – what they are and why we need them

photo credit: pubs.usgs

Buffer zones and buffer strips are the areas between aquatic and terrestrial zones.  The best-known buffer strips are wetlands and riparian zones.  They can consist of natural or planted vegetation and serve as a place for water and matter storage.  

The two types of limitations that impact buffer zones are internal limitations and external limitations.  Internal limitations are those that have to do with the qualities of the buffer zone itself e.g. the width, the soil qualities, the pH levels, the organic matter content and the soil porosity. The external limitations include outside influencing factors like the size of the basin, the geochemistry of a location, the climate, hydrology, slope and stream morphology.Some buffer zones can also link ephemeral (short-term) and perennial areas with non-point source loads via surface or groundwater paths.  

We need these unique natural treasures because they offer valuable services that man-made options and replacements simply cannot reproduce.  This means that existing buffer zones should be protected in an effort to benefit the majority, rather than the minority.  In areas that have buffer zones, the following benefits are enjoyed:

  • During warm periods, buffer zones cool in the summertime via evapotranspiration and shading
  • Many unique species of plants and animals have a place to live creating havens of biodiversity
  • Water is filtered water slowly through the dead and decomposing organic matter, as well as non-organic components
  • Sedimentation occurs which keeps water cleaner and reduces the likelihood that unwanted particles enter other water sources
  • Embankments are stabilized and coastlines are protected from storm and flood damage 
  • Groundwater recharge takes place which keeps aquifers full
  • Groundwater composition is changed as excess nitrogen and other nutrients/toxins are removed which improves water quality and reduces the need for artificial water filtration efforts
  • Litter and dead wood is allocated, concentrated and distributed to aquatic organisms
  • Carbon is sequestered

With so many positive benefits, it is clear that buffer zone protection is imperative.  This is especially true with the many environmental uncertainties that we are facing in the modern world making it essential to protect and preserve these valuable natural service providers.

photo credit: elibrary.dep.state.pa.gov


One Reply to “buffer zones & buffer strips – what they are and why we need them”

  1. I deal with buffers all the time as I managed a lot of wetland, stream, and river property. Although our county has a pretty strict buffer zone (75′ compared to 25′ in the rest of GA), it’s amazing the exemptions we have for utility companies and developers in terms of building in the buffer. Makes me sad. When you add invasive infestations into the mix, it’s even worse. Most of our buffers are now comprised entirely of privet. One stream I manage in particular used to be mostly river cane and river birch … the cane is being choked out and huge birch trees fall into the river monthly from bank erosion.


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