Brad Ross: Riparian buffers can protect our water


Most of us are plugged into the news in multiple ways through laptop computers, televisions, cellphones, Facebook, Twitter and non-electronic forms like the newspaper, radio and talk around the water cooler. We can learn about events that are close to home and halfway across the world with ease.

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you can’t have missed all of the publicity concerning harmful algal blooms (HAB) and their effect on the water quality of our rivers, streams and lakes. Summer is not yet here and already HAB has been featured by the media.

Marine and fresh waters teem with microscopic life and all aquatic life depends on this microscopic life for food. Most of these phytoplankton and cyanobacteria are harmless. An algal bloom is a rapid increase in the population of algae in a water system. Not all are harmful; however, they can be harmful when they are so thick that they block sunlight that other organisms need to live.

When the bloom dies, the algae die and decompose, depleting the oxygen in the water and starving fish and plants, and damaging the local ecology. There are a few algae that create toxins given the right conditions. These toxins can sicken or kill people and animals, create dead zones in the water, raise treatment costs for drinking water, and negatively affect industries that depend on clean water.

I am showing my age, but the “fickle finger of fate” (remember the TV show “Laugh-In” from the 1970s?) has been pointed at excess nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, that wash into water bodies, often the direct result of human activity. Unfortunately, there is nothing funny about the effects of HAB and the impacts to water around the world. Some sources can be poorly maintained or failing home on-site sewage treatment systems, excess fertilizers from lawns and farm fields, manure from animals, storm sewer outfalls, acid mine drainage, effluent from municipal sewage treatment, and sediments.

A conservation practice that can be implemented by homeowners and agricultural producers alike is a riparian buffer. Riparian comes from the Latin word “riparius,” which is derived from the Latin word “ripa” (bank), and refers to the banks of a natural course of water. This zone can be planted to trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs, or a combination of these, which form a “living filter” for both surface and subsurface water leaving up-slope areas. There are many benefits such as:

• Reducing sediment, nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants from reaching the water body.

• Creating shade to lower water temperatures, which improves habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms.

• Providing woody debris for aquatic habitat structure.

• Providing food for aquatic species,

• Enhancing habitat for terrestrial wildlife and pollinators.

• Stabilizing the banks of the river, stream, pond or sinkhole.

• Moderating flooding and recharging groundwater.

It is recommended that native trees, shrubs and plants be used, as they are best suited for Ohio’s soils and climate. Favor species that have multiple values, such as nuts, fruit, syrup, nesting sites, aesthetics, recreation, visual and/or auditory screening and timber.

Visit the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District’s website at to view details on several community workshops we are offering this summer.

Brad Ross

Contributing columnist

Brad Ross is communications specialist at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at [email protected].

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