Why do I need a Vegetated Buffer?
By Geri Williams
As waterfront property owners, we are the first line of defense in protecting our shorelines and waterbodies. What we do on our property directly affects the pond or stream we live on, and thus we are caretakers not only of our own yard, but of the pond or stream itself.
Stormwater runoff is the single largest contributor to water quality degradation in Massachusetts. The problem is that storm water runoff carries a huge amount of pollution into a pond, unless the runoff is captured in vegetation growing along the pond or on the slope above it.
A vegetated buffer is a protective area of trees, shrubs and other plants between a waterbody and human activity. They are “living filters”, because they capture many of the pollutants that travel through them. These pollutants include sediment, sand, salt, oil, gas, antifreeze and other pollutants from roads and driveways; pesticides and fertilizers from home gardens and lawns; and trash, pet droppings and other debris. Phosphorus, the pollutant of particular concern for increasing algae and cyanobacteria blooms, is one of these pollutants.
The way vegetated buffers work is by dispersing and slowing down rain and the flow of surface water. They trap sediment, extend retention times and increase the rate of infiltration. It is estimated that 80-90% of phosphorus reaches our freshwaters adhered to sediment. The longer that runoff is in contact with the soil, the more time that plants and soil microorganisms have to absorb and transform pollution into less harmful forms.
The Regulations of the Plymouth Conservation Commission established a “No touch zone” buffer of 35 feet from the edge of ponds, streams, wetlands and coasts. This means that to protect these waterbodies residents who own property along side a pond, steam, etc. cannot make any changes on their property within 35ft of the water edge. This includes removing trees and shrubs, adding sand, retaining walls or pathways and stairs without prior approval of the Conservation Commission. Regulations also provide protections for land up to 100 feet from the edge of the water or wetland. An allowable exempt activity is judicious view pruning. This does not permit the removal of trees, but allows the removal of select branches to open up the canopy and improve the view. The rules are there to protect our environment and enhance the quality of life and enjoyment for all of us.
We have seen in the past two summers Great Herring Pond had harmful cyanobacteria blooms that close our pond and restrict our recreational activities. It is excess phosphorus that allows the cyanobacteria, which are always present at low levels, to grow exponentially to toxic levels. It is especially important that those of us who border the ponds and streams in our watershed do not remove the trees and shrubs along the water’s edge. If they have already been removed we should plant native trees, shrubs and other plants to establish a vegetated buffer. Some good native trees to use are red oak, black cherry, yellow, paper, grey and black birch, red and sugar maple, and shadbush or Amelanchier. Some of the native shrubs already growing beside the ponds that provide high nutrition for birds and insects are blueberry, swamp azalea, inkberry holly, sweet pepperbush and black chokeberry. But also attractive to use are red osier and grey dogwood, willows, mountain laurel, and various native viburnums.
Green buffers or plantings also prevent shore erosion, add beauty to our yards, preserve habitat for birds and wildlife, and discourage geese from crossing them to graze on our lawns – just as the original, undeveloped shoreline did.
What else can I do?
- Conduct a Rainy Day Survey of your property. This will help you determine runoff problems and prioritize improvements. Place your buffer in the direct path of the stormwater runoff.
- Minimize exposed soils, especially along the water’s edge. Revegetate eroded areas like dirt paths, bare slopes and exposed tree roots.
- Do not allow mowed grass to enter the water. Grass is easily broken down and the nutrients can cause algal blooms.
- Avoid paved or straight paths from your home to the shoreline. Instead create a curved path that reduces velocity of runoff water rushing downhill.
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