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Fewer Trees = More Pollution

MattaponiJust when nearly everyone agrees the Chesapeake Bay region should use one of its most powerful weapons in the fight to Save the Bay, the region seems to be waving a white flag and walking away.

Bay scientists and policy makers have known for decades that forested riparian buffers – trees planted in 35-foot strips along the banks of streams – are among the most cost-effective pollution-reduction tools around.

Streamside trees trap and filter some of the Bay’s most problematic pollutants -- nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment – before they can run off into the water and cause havoc. The trees and their roots literally buffer the waterways from pollution, filtering out as much as 60 percent of nitrogen, 40 percent of phosphorus, and nearly half of sediment in runoff. The trees also help reduce erosion, provide shade, cool water temperatures, and provide critical food and shelter for wildlife.

No wonder then that Chesapeake Bay restoration partners have made replanting streamside trees among their top priorities for returning the Bay and its rivers to good health.

Virginia and the other Bay states, for example, have adopted Clean Water Blueprints that together call for restoring 185,860 new acres of forested buffers by 2025. That’s planting about 14,295 acres a year. Each of the state plans, in fact, relies heavily on forested stream buffers to achieve pollution reduction goals, more so than any other single strategy except retiring farmland altogether.

Similarly, the U.S. Forest Service, responding to a 2009 executive order by President Obama to restore the Bay, is working to ensure forest buffers cover 63 percent of the Bay watershed’s shoreline miles. (The entire watershed contains 288,000 riparian miles, of which currently only 58 percent are buffered.) That means planting trees along 900 new miles of streams each year to reach 2025 goals. 

But here’s the thing: the Bay partners are already falling way behind. Just when more buffers are needed to reduce more pollution, progress in planting them has slowed to its lowest point in 14 years. The reasons are varied, and for a full explanation see this article in this month’s Bay Journal

Buffer trendsBut the accompanying Bay Program chart shows at a glance just how dire the stream buffer situation has become.

Bay advocates such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) are rightly alarmed at this unsettling trend and what it portends for the ultimate success of the Bay Clean Water Blueprint. In a letter to Bay Program partners late last year, CBF urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new buffer goals for 2014-15 and to accelerate efforts, especially using Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program funds and other incentives in targeted, priority watersheds.

At a state level, CBF was critical last year when Virginia a missed a great opportunity to promote more forested stream banks by deleting a buffer requirement in regulations for farmers voluntarily seeking “safe harbor” exemptions from new Bay cleanup requirements.

Meanwhile, CBF and other nongovernment partners continue their work to increase, not slow, the pace DSC_0077of stream buffers. Case in point: for several days this month, CBF partnered with farmers and other landowners to plant more than 2/3 mile of stream buffers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Helping were volunteers, including more than 35 college students from Pennsylvania on their spring break.

If college students are willing to forego spring vacation to plant streamside trees, surely federal and state officials can stir themselves to do so!

Chuck Epes

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photos: Top, Bill Portlock/CBF; bottom, Chuck Epes/CBF)


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Great post Chuck! Trees are the answer!

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