The importance of riparian land use decisions

This article is a continuation of our last article that focused on the important functions of riparian vegetation for streams and rivers throughout Southern Appalachia, such as filtering sediment, providing shade, removing excess nitrogen, helping prevent erosion, and providing habitat for aquatic animals. This week’s article is focused on the ways landowners and residents of Macon County can help improve and protect riparian areas and is the product of our having discussed these issues with a range of local officials from various public environmental agencies. Because so many landowners have creeks and streams running through their property, people play a significant role in the health of the streams and rivers here in Macon County.

Luckily, there are some simple actions landowners can take, if they choose to, to help maintain the streams and protect water quality in this region.

The easiest and most important thing for a landowner to do is to leave a buffer of uncut and undisturbed vegetation along stream banks. The wider the buffer the better, but what’s more important is the length of the buffer. Try to avoid clearing vegetation in long stretches along the streambank.

Trees and plants provide shade to keep streams cool for species like trout. Trees also provide habitat in the form of leaves and branches that fall in the water. Fallen leaves and branches also play an important part in the food cycle, as many aquatic insects feed on these dead leaves and branches, which are in turn preyed upon by fish and salamanders. Also, trees help stabilize streambanks and filter pollution in the groundwater from seeping into the stream, such as household pesticides and fertilizers, which leads to another simple way to protect water quality.

Second, be cautious when using pesticides and chemicals outdoors. Read and follow the labels carefully with using herbicides and pesticides, as most of the common herbicides, such as Roundup, are not labeled for use in or near streams because they have been shown to be toxic to aquatic organisms. If you spray pesticides and herbicides, spray when the wind is calm to keep any drift from ending up in nearby creeks (or your neighbor’s garden) and try to spray when the chance of rain is low so that the pesticide does not wash into nearby creeks.

Another contributor to pollution entering waterways is impervious surfaces. Impervious surfaces are human-made structures, such as asphalt, concrete, and gravel used for roads, parking lots, and driveways, that make the ground impenetrable for water. This stops rainwater from being absorbed back into the ground to be filtered by plants and trees before entering a waterway, and instead causes rainwater to rush directly into the stream, taking all the pollution from roads, gutters, sidewalks, and rooftops with it.

As a general rule, the more impervious surfaces, the lower the base flow a stream will have (making the stream susceptible to drying up during drought) and the higher the storm surge during rain events (increasing the chance of flooding). So, a third suggestion for landowners is to limit the amount of impervious surfaces and to keep impervious surfaces as far away from streambanks as possible.

Livestock can also be a contributor to poor streamwater quality. When livestock enter a stream to get a drink of water or to cool off in the summer, they are directly depositing excess nitrogen into the waterway through their feces and also eroding the streambank with every passage. Livestock feces can raise levels of fecal coliform in the water causing the water to be unsafe for drinking or swimming, and hoof shear can destabilize streambanks, restrict stream flow downstream, and increase the likelihood of flooding.

Fencing out livestock from a stream can be a major undertaking, both costly and time consuming. Fortunately, landowners in Macon County have some excellent resources available to them to help share this burden.

The following are some of the local and regional resources available to those who wish to restore, protect or conserve streams through their property:

• The Macon County Soil and Water Conservation District run an Agriculture Cost-Share Program that covers 75 percent of costs for qualified landowners, and a Community Conservation Assistance Program that covers 75 percent of the cost of streambank restoration. Mike Breedlove and Doug Johnson can be reached at (828) 524-3311.

• For those looking for help with erosion control, sedimentation, and flood damage prevention, contact the Macon County Environmental Services supervisor, Matt Mason, at (828) 349-2560.

• If you’re looking for help with permitting, engineering, water quality standards, or have questions or complaints about water pollution, contact Kevin Barnett from the NC Division of Water Quality at (828) 296-4500.

• If you have questions about establishing riparian vegetation along a streambank, preferable tree and plant varieties, proper pesticide administration, and help with erosion control, contact the Macon County Extension Director, Alan Durden, at (828) 349-2046.

• If you’re interested in placing an easement on your property, ongoing biomonitoring efforts, or would like to get involved and learn more about protecting water quality and the waterways in Macon County, contact the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee at (828) 524-2711. 


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. Feb 17, 2012.