Riparian Buffer Width, Vegetative Cover, and Nitrogen Removal Effectiveness: A Review of Current Science and Regulations

Mayer, P.M., Reynolds, S.K. Jr., Canfield, T.J.

Riparian zones, the vegetated region adjacent to streams and wetlands, are thought to be effective at intercepting and controlling nitrogen loads entering water bodies. Buffer width may be positively related to nitrogen removal effectiveness by influencing nitrogen retention through plant sequestration or removal through microbial denitrification. We surveyed peer-reviewed scientific literature containing data on riparian buffers and nitrogen concentration in streams and groundwater of riparian zones to identify causation and trends in the relationship between buffer width and nitrogen removal capacity. We also examined Federal and State regulations regarding riparian buffer widths to determine if such legislation reflects the current scientific understanding of buffer effectiveness. Nitrogen removal effectiveness varied widely among riparian zones studied. Subsurface removal of nitrogen was efficient but did not appear to be related to buffer width. Surface removal of nitrogen was partly related to buffer width and was generally inefficient, removing only a small fraction of the total nitrogen flowing through soil surface layers. While some narrow buffers (1-15 m) removed significant proportions of nitrogen, narrow buffers actually contributed to nitrogen loads in riparian zones in some cases. Wider buffers (>50 m) more consistently removed significant portions of nitrogen entering a riparian zone. Buffers of various vegetation types were equally effective at removing nitrogen in the subsurface but not in surface flow. The general lack of vegetation type or buffer width effects on nitrogen removal, especially in the subsurface, suggests that soil type, watershed hydrology (e.g., soil saturation, groundwater flow paths, etc.), and subsurface biogeochemistry (organic carbon supply, high nitrate inputs) may be more important factors dictating nitrogen concentrations due to their influence on denitrification. State and Federal guidelines for buffer width also varied widely but were generally consistent with the peer-reviewed literature on effective buffer width, recommending or mandating buffers ~7-100 m wide. Proper design, placement, and protection of buffers are critical to buffer effectiveness. To maintain maximum effectiveness, buffer integrity should be protected against soil compaction, loss of vegetation, and stream incision. Maintaining buffers around stream headwaters will likely be most effective at maintaining overall watershed water quality while restoring degraded riparian zones, and stream channels may improve nitrogen removal capacity. Riparian buffers are a “best management practice” (BMP) that should be used in conjunction with a comprehensive watershed management plan that includes control and reduction of point and non-point sources of nitrogen from atmospheric, terrestrial, and aquatic inputs.