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TITLE: Save That Stream! Strategies for Stream Bank Management
by Jennie Kramer
Looking back, I’m thankful I didn’t know what lurked in the water. If I had, I likely would not have gone swimming on that hot summer day. Like most children, however, I was simply happy to have a respite from the heat - a place to splash, cool myself, and make memories.
By the 1970’s, concern for the health of the nation’s water was on the rise. In 1972, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was amended and became the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA established guidelines for the discharge of pollution into U.S waters; additionally, it prohibited direct discharge without a permit, and addressed the need for non-point source (NPS) pollution planning.
Non-point source pollution describes an accumulation of various pollutants – often agriculturally sourced – that is carried overland via precipitation to lakes, rivers, streams and oceans. Pollutants originating from equine operations typically take one of two forms; the first, nutrient loading, describes dangerous levels of nutrients leached into waterways, usually from manure. The second, sediment pollution, is a problem that commonly occurs when livestock are allowed unlimited access to waterways within a turn-out area. The collective damage of these two pollutants has led to the development of many oxygen-starved “dead zones” around the world.
One of the most effective methods of limiting equine damage to aquatic ecosystems is the creation of a riparian buffer. A riparian buffer is a vegetated area located between - and up-gradient from - livestock holding areas and surface water. A properly implemented buffer strip will filter pollutants carried overland, or through groundwater, before they are deposited into surface water. Established vegetation will stabilize stream banks, further reducing soil loss to the water; additionally, native plantings will provide wildlife habitat.
Establishing a Riparian Buffer on Your Property
It is always advisable to seek the expertise of someone experienced in stream bank restoration when creating a riparian buffer. Your local resource conservation office will be able to provide assistance through the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). In addition to providing information, trained technicians can evaluate the condition of your stream bank, identify areas of concern, and recommend appropriate solutions, all at little or no cost to the landowner.
Because space is often a precious commodity for horse keepers, restricting livestock from large tracts of land is sometimes impractical. The good news is that even a narrow buffer of 25 feet can improve the health of a waterway.
A buffer is typically broken down into three zones. Zone one is located at the water’s edge; zones two and three move progressively inland. The width of each zone, and the vegetation that comprises it, will vary based on several factors including: water body size, adjacent land use, and desired habitat improvements.
To illustrate this concept, envision a suburban yard and a traditionally cultivated field. A non-chemically-treated yard will typically contribute fewer impurities to a water source than a cultivated field. For this reason, a narrower buffer may be sufficient to improve water quality in the suburban setting; the farmed field may require a significantly wider design. The creation of wildlife habitat will also necessitate a wider buffer; while small mammals will inhabit narrow strips, amphibians and birds will require anywhere from 100 to 300 feet of vegetation.
If possible, the vegetation within a buffer should be native, and customized to meet the requirements of a particular situation; designs should also reflect the landowner’s future plans for the property.
For example, a narrow buffer planted in grass will offer little in the way of habitat or stream bank stabilization; grass will, however, effectively filter pollutants before they can be deposited into a water channel. This design may be adequate in our prior example of a suburban lawn with a stable stream bank. In the case of an unstable stream bank, establishing trees in zone one would provide stabilization, albeit little filtration. By comparison, a waterway which adjoins fields receiving pesticides and manure will require a larger buffer with a wider variety of vegetation.
Each type of vegetation will provide habitat for different wildlife; even deadfall left in (or over) the waterway will promote lower water temperatures and provide hiding places for fish.
Stream Bank Fencing and Crossings
A strong potential for damage exists when horses are allowed unrestricted access to waterways. For this reason, stream bank fencing will be recommended in situations where horses would otherwise have access to a newly-established buffer. Horse-safe fencing, when erected a minimum 25 feet from the channel, will reduce pollution, stream bank erosion, and sedimentation caused by the movement of horses within the water. Additionally, fencing will promote vegetative growth within the buffer, further reducing the likelihood of pollution entering the channel.
In situations where horses require admittance to the stream for watering, a stabilized crossing can be established. Through the use of materials such as stone and geo-textile, the crossing will minimize damage to the stream while still allowing access to watering livestock.
New buffers will require regular maintenance and observation until they become more established. Necessary maintenance may include:
- weekly watering (when necessary) to ensure the survival of new vegetation
- mowing to reduce competition for sunlight
- weed control (mulching, etc.) to allow native vegetation to become established
Afterwards, only periodic maintenance will be necessary.
While most of us survived swimming in oft-unsanitary waters, I don’t believe it’s an experience that I’ll be replicating for my son anytime soon. While many dream of having a stream on their property, the beauty and convenience of free-flowing water come at a price - the responsible stewardship of a shared resource. Fortunately, many simple, cost-effective options exist for horse keepers wishing to mitigate their impact on these fragile ecosystems. It is these people to whom I will be obliged when, one day, in the not-too-distant future, my grandchildren will be fortunate enough to enjoy those mid-summer swims.
A special thanks to the Schuylkill Conservation District and Mark and Karla Dreisbach of Green Heron Farm for their assistance with the production of this article – and their dedication to preserving our natural resources for future generations.
About the author:
Jennie Kramer is an environmental writer based in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Agronomy and Environmental Science, and possesses over a decade of horse farm management experience. She is also the Associate Editor of Natural Horse Magazine.
Jennie can be reached at
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