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Photo: Hydrologist Jonathan Angier collects groundwater beneath a Beltsville, Maryland, riparian zone to analyze it for dissolved gas content. Link to photo information
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Read the magazine story to find out more.

Riparian Buffer Zones Help Clean Chesapeake Bay

By Sharon Durham
October 24, 2002

For years, riparian buffer zones between farmland and bodies of water were assumed to be beneficial to waterways. To learn more about how these zones help the environment, Agricultural Research Service scientists are looking at riparian zones in the vast Chesapeake Bay watershed.

ARS soil scientist Gregory McCarty and hydrologist Jonathan Angier, at the ARS Environmental Quality Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., are studying the design and function of these riparian zones with the goal of improving Chesapeake Bay water quality and helping restore the bay to an even healthier state.

Riparian systems consist of grasses, forest vegetation and combinations of plants that could slow down surface runoff of unwanted substances into the bay and potentially reduce surface and groundwater contaminants. Vegetation takes up some of the excess nutrients, and some is trapped in the soils.

The research was conducted in a riparian system approximating Maryland coastal plain farmland. Typical field-applied agricultural chemicals, particularly nutrients and pesticides, can lead to contaminated drinking water and other negative impacts on the bay.

The scientists are studying the impact that water moving through the system has on the effectiveness of the buffer. Water is known to not only move across the land surface, but also to move vertically between the surface and the groundwater table.

In the hydrology study, five sampling stations were constructed along a stream to monitor stream lengths individually and allow comparison with one another.

The researchers found that stream flow characteristics vary in different sections of the stream. Some areas have more groundwater rising to the surface than others, and stream flow varies greatly, depending upon the season and location along the stream. These variations impact how much of the excess nutrients and chemicals ultimately make it to larger surface waters.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more details on this research, see the October 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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