Buffer zones are intended to provide a vegetative filter for runoff approaching a waterway, acting to trap particulates and absorb flows to minimize the entry of contaminants into streams and lakes. Buffer strips provide additional habitat benefits, and may be the best way to prevent problems by acting on a watershed-wide basis. The desirability is undeniable, but effectiveness is a complex function of buffer zone width, slope, soils and vegetative features. Engineered buffer zones can be very effective, but may not be overly natural or attractive. Natural buffers have been found to require substantial width (>100 feet, with removal still increasing at widths >500 feet), and few landowners are willing to concede enough land to buffers to maximize effectiveness. Any buffer is a good thing, but if buffers are to be a major factor in water quality management, they need to be wide enough and well-structured to hold and process runoff.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to use of buffers is a societal tendency to favor open lawn areas and avoid high and dense vegetation. Sociologists have suggested that this is a primal response related to personal safety, as though tigers might be hiding in the high grass by the lake! Landscape architects have suggested that it is an aesthetic issue, with disorganized, natural growths suggesting sloppiness and lack of care by the owner. Robert Kirschner of the Chicago Botanical Garden gave a great talk called “What will the neighbors think?” a few years ago at the NECNALMS conference, in which he described the steps lakefront (or streamfront) property owners could take to make effective buffer strips look organized and acceptable within the neighborhood. In Maine, the LakeSmart program recognizes shorefront owners who maintain landscapes that minimize runoff impacts on lakes. We need both a cultural shift in what is “acceptable” and application of clever guidance that facilitates effective buffers without losing aesthetics.
A landscaping compromise to add buffer functionality without sacrificing aesthetics.