Researchers receive USDA grant to study new riparian buffer strategy

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team led by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has received a nearly $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a three-year study of a new flexible strategy to ramp up installation of riparian buffers.

These zones of vegetation adjacent to streams — typically including native grasses, trees and shrubs — generally are highly effective in reducing the amount of sediment, nutrients and other pollutants that enter streams. High-quality riparian buffers also provide an array of benefits beyond water-quality protection, including wildlife habitat and flood mitigation.

Protection and restoration of riparian buffers have emerged as top priorities for water-quality initiatives in watersheds across the country. Pennsylvania's Watershed Implementation Plan to meet Chesapeake Bay water-quality goals is particularly ambitious. It calls for an additional 95,000 acres of riparian forest buffer to be installed by 2025.

This research project is aimed at overcoming current barriers to the adoption of riparian buffers, according to lead researcher Heather Gall, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering.

While buffers provide significant ecosystem benefits, they can be expensive to install, and because they can entail removing cropland from profitable intensive farming, they can have high costs for farmers, she explained. Effective buffers are not short-term landscape changes — the most effective are long-term ecosystem investments and correspondingly long-term restrictions on farmers' land-use choices.

"Even with financial assistance to help cover installation and other costs, those constraints may deter adoption," Gall said. "A key issue influencing farmers' willingness to adopt this practice involves buffer design standards that must be satisfied to receive assistance — the more restrictive the standards, the greater the reluctance to install buffers. So buffer policymakers face a trade-off between buffer performance and adoption."

To boost riparian-buffer creation, researchers will design choice experiments that provide flexible options to landowners in two Pennsylvania watersheds — Spring Creek in Centre County and Conewago Creek in Dauphin County. Those options will gauge how offering a wider array of choices for width, vegetation type, spatial arrangement and management affects farmers' willingness to adopt buffers.

big buffer pix

While riparian buffers buffers provide significant ecosystem benefits, they can be expensive to install, and because they can entail removing cropland from profitable intensive farming, they can have high costs for farmers. This research project is aimed at overcoming current barriers to the adoption of riparian buffers.

Image: USDA Southern Research Station

One option to be offered will waive the current buffer-harvesting restriction, which could allow farmers to better integrate buffers within their farming systems. They would be permitted to generate revenue from harvesting activities compatible with the buffer functions, such as using shrub willow for water-quality benefits and as a bioenergy feedstock, harvesting and replanting on seven-year cycles.

Researchers, with the help of Penn State Extension educators, will hold focus groups with farmers and stakeholders to identify desirable aspects of riparian buffers and preferences regarding ecosystem services, and then generate model scenarios that represent alternative performance characteristics of ecosystem-service benefits.

The research team will use results of the focus groups and choice surveys to design watershed-modeling scenarios to assess water-quality improvements resulting from various buffer designs. Researchers also intend to identify synergies and tradeoffs from both the farmer and social-planner perspectives in adoption of a flexible riparian-buffer framework.

Finally, researchers plan to use their findings to develop regulatory and incentive design recommendations for states such as Pennsylvania to adjust their riparian buffer regulations, making them more flexible.

stream photo

Protection and restoration of riparian buffers — zones of vegetation adjacent to streams, typically including native grasses, trees and shrubs — have emerged as top priorities for water-quality initiatives in watersheds across the country. They generally are highly effective in reducing the amount of sediment, nutrients and other pollutants that enter streams.

Image: USDA

The unique aspect of the research is the melding of biophysical and social sciences with extension outreach, Gall said. It avoids the appearance of scientists independently determining a solution without integrating aspects valued by farmers and stakeholders.

"We won't have biophysical scientists running hypothetical scenarios on their computers, while not communicating with the people actually adopting these practices on their farms and not knowing what these people want and are willing to implement," she said.

"This will bring in the social science and the extension component to say, 'OK, in the first year, rather than just start modeling, let's go talk to landowners and learn what they want, and then we can bring that back to the modelers to explore what various desirable scenarios look like from a water-quality perspective.'"

Other Penn State researchers on the team include: Cibin Raj, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering; James Shortle, distinguished professor of agricultural and environmental economics; Robert Brooks, professor of geography and ecology; Katherine Zipp, assistant professor of environmental resource economics; and Matthew Royer, director of the Agriculture and Environment Center. Also on the team are Tamie Veith, adjunct associate professor, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service; and Lisa Wainger, University of Maryland.

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Last Updated July 21, 2017