Streamside Buffers

Forest buffers between a river and farm fields
Photo courtesy of Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program
Plants along streams provide habitat and protect the waterways from erosion and pollutants.

Streamside buffers are trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that grow next to waterways. In addition to providing habitat for a variety of wildlife, their location next to the water can help protect the stream habitat as well. These buffers can stabilize the stream banks, preventing sediment from entering the water. Plants within the buffer can also improve water quality by filtering and absorbing nutrients and chemical contaminants.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed continues to experience an increase in population. This increase means more development and pollution negatively impacting the health of waterways which is why streamside buffers are so important. Forest buffers are a vital habitat goal for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Stakeholders from across the region are working together to ensure at least 70 percent of waterways are buffered by forests.

Connecting to Issue Investigation

Planting along streams is a powerful conservation practice that can improve water quality and habitat locally and downstream. If investigations lead students to conclude that water quality or stream habitat needs improving, streamside buffers can be a solution. Adding the right plants alongside even the smallest stream can have positive impacts on overall water quality. A streamside buffer near a school can also serve as an outdoor laboratory or location for outdoor learning across many disciplines.

For those working towards green school awards, this action can reduce a school’s environmental impact if the buffer is located on school grounds.

Facilitating Student Action

Students should continue to have opportunities to share ideas and opinions throughout the process of identifying, planning, and implementing action. Listed here are just a few ways students can stay engaged while working on this solution—but there are many more! The complexity of each activity/task can be adjusted for each grade level.

  • Protect - students can educate others on why streamside buffers should be protected. Younger students can create simple scripts to deliver to decision makers and land owners and older students can create more involved presentations that include primary sources.

  • Restore - students can work on restoring and/or expanding a streamside buffer. For restoration, students can use age-appropriate resources to identify invasive plants, remove them, and suggest replacements to improve the habitat. For expansion, students can research the width a buffer needs to be for maximum stream habitat value and present their proposed expansion to stakeholders.

  • Create - students can create a streamside buffer on their schoolyard or in the community. Depending on age, students can help with or lead the initial steps of determining which plants would thrive in a place by measuring the soil and precipitation. Students can research the components of a healthy and effective streamside buffer and get involved with plant selection, habitat design, and installation.

  • Monitor - students can monitor a new or established streamside buffer. Monitoring protocols will differ by age. Results and observations can be shared with others to encourage protection, restoration or expansion. Data sets can build up over years and students can track changes in the habitat.

  • Share and Celebrate - students can share their work with the school community by giving tours of a streamside buffer, giving presentations, creating displays, or writing and delivering morning announcements. Students can also write articles, press releases or invite reporters from the school paper and the local newspaper.

Streamside Buffer Resources

  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide is a comprehensive guide that walks you through the entire process of creating or restoring a schoolyard habitat or outdoor classroom space. The information is transferable to habitats outside schoolyards. Though it doesn’t specifically address streamside buffers, depending on the type of buffer you choose, you can use the appendices to learn about planting a wetland, meadow and woodland. The guide also includes ideas for monitoring and sharing your work.

  • The Green Book for the Buffer was created by Adkins Arboretum and the Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake, and Atlantic Coastal Bays. Though created in Maryland, the reference is transferable across the region. In addition to sharing why buffers are important, the guide provides easy to follow designs for a variety of buffers or gardens.

    • Live Staking is often a cheaper and easier method for stabilizing stream banks. Check out a How-to Guide from Pennsylvania extension to learn more about the option.

  • To monitor an established buffer and to monitor changes after students restore or create a buffer, check out this student Stream Health Data Sheet. It was created by Maryland Department of Natural Resources but works for any stream in the region.

  • Before starting a project, look for local experts that can help. Find your local Conservation District or Extension Office.