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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Evaluating Riparian Buffers' Effectiveness / October 25, 2005 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

Top: duck walks along streambank; middle: soil core; bottom: skunk cabbage: Each image links to its photo information Skunk cabbage Soil core Duck walks along streambank
Ducks and other riparian wildlife benefit when wooded or grassy streambanks and wetlands keep excess nitrate and phosphorus from entering streams. Soil core in middle photo shows, at right, a dark, upper soil layer rich in organic matter that helps break down these nutrients. Skunk cabbage, bottom photo, is an example of wetland vegetation that takes up and uses the nutrients. Click the images for more information about them.

Evaluating Riparian Buffers' Effectiveness

By Don Comis
October 25, 2005

A specially designed field chamber has proved to be a good tool when used together with a computer model to evaluate how effectively riparian buffers filter out pollutants before they can reach streams or other bodies of water.

That is the finding from a series of systematic studies of a riparian grass buffer zone by scientists at the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) Henry A. Wallace Beltsville (Md.) Agricultural Research Center (BARC).

After success with a prototype chamber in the laboratory, BARC soil scientists Jim Starr, Ali Sadeghi and Yakov Pachepsky installed a field version of the chamber in a tall fescue grass buffer near a forested stream and wetland area. The chamber has no top or bottom and encases the four sides of a 3-by-3-foot block of soil down to 4 feet.

The scientists injected water with dissolved nitrate into one side of the soil chamber. Then, as water flowed horizontally and out the other side, they monitored rates of lateral water flow and loss of nitrate due to its breakdown by soil microbes.

Riparian buffers are wooded or grassy streambanks or wetlands that filter out pollutants such as nitrate from fertilizer and other chemicals, as well as sediment. The slow movement of nitrate through highly organic riparian areas provides ideal conditions for soil microbes to break down or transform the nitrate into safer compounds.

The scientists used the two-dimensional computer model "HYDRUS-2D" to simulate water flow and transport of chemicals within the riparian zone soil. Overall, the model-chamber combination provided good results.

The experimental chamber is essential for the accurate use of the growing number of computer models being developed to assess the effectiveness of riparian buffers. Once a model gets this information for a particular location, it can predict nitrate loss rates.

A paper on this study will appear in the November-December issue of the Soil Science Society of America Journal.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief in-house scientific research agency.

Last Modified: 10/25/2005