PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

Riparian Buffers: a Natural, Inexpensive, and Crucial Way to Protect and Improve Water Quality

What are riparian buffers?

Riparian buffers are the areas of undeveloped land surrounding bodies of water that contain trees, shrubs, and other plants. Riparian buffers protect water quality and create wildlife habitat along creeks, streams, rivers, and wetlands. They offer valuable ecosystem services to nearby human communities, and they act as both an economic driver and financial saver for these communities.
Riparian buffers serve many roles. They provide habitat for wildlife and maintain cool water temperatures to support aquatic life, like trout. They act as sponges, soaking up stormwater runoff, which reduces the occurrence and impact of flooding. They also act as filters by purifying that stormwater, removing contaminants like road salt and vehicle fluids that can get carried into waterways during heavy rainfall events.


Benefits of riparian buffers to PA’s waters and communities

Pennsylvania's waterways are under threat. More than 30% of Pennsylvania's 86,000 stream miles are so polluted that the DEP considers them "impaired” - meaning that they are too polluted to meet the standards set for them. This includes rivers like the Lehigh, which was named one of the nation’s “Most Endangered Rivers” in April 2023. What's more, only 2% of Pennsylvania's stream miles are clean enough to be designated as Exceptional Value, having the best and most protected water quality in the state. 

Stormwater runoff is the major source of water pollution across the state. Stormwater carries with it pollution such as sediment, nutrients, and even toxic chemicals. This is especially true where chemicals such as fertilizers or manure are inappropriately applied to the land. Moreover, large areas of impervious surfaces - like parking lots and roofs of industrial buildings - shed stormwater quickly, increasing the likelihood of flooding. If not properly managed, stormwater harms our waters by increasing both the type and amount of pollutants that enter the Commonwealth’s waters.

In addition to the environmental and ecological benefits described above, riparian buffers provide a wide range of ecosystem services, which benefit surrounding human communities. These services include:

  • Capturing and storing carbon in vegetation and soils, which helps regulate the climate and clean the air.
  • Mitigating the negative effects of land use, including commercial or industrial development.
  • Reducing the cost of and stress on water treatment infrastructure by trapping sediment and pollutants before they reach the water.
  • Decreasing soil erosion - the roots of vegetation hold soil in place, even during extreme weather events and flooding.

These ecosystem services translate into real monetary value. Riparian buffers in the Delaware River Basin, alone, provide about $11,000 per acre in services each year. The social cost of carbon is approximately $50 per metric ton, so Pennsylvania’s 219 million metric tons of CO2 of annual emissions contribute to $10.95 billion in damages every year. However, one million acres of riparian buffer around the state could offset around 70% of that figure, even without considering the other ecosystem service benefits. Case in point, riparian buffers provide up to $9,409 of carbon storage benefits per acre per year in the Delaware River Basin. Additionally, according to regional case studies, watershed conservation in New York was at least $6.5 billion cheaper than a new filtration plant; and, in the Chesapeake Bay, each pound of nitrogen abatement was nearly one-third cheaper when done by forest buffers instead of treatment plants.


We need to do more to protect riparian buffers from destruction and development. 

And we know that Pennsylvanians support this. Last spring, the Our Pocono Waters campaign commissioned a survey of community members in the headwaters of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. The results were overwhelming -  94% of residents in the Poconos want their state and local officials to do more to protect and preserve their waterways. And we see similar sentiments from communities throughout the Commonwealth, especially in relation to increased flooding and other climate impacts. 

We know that downstream communities experience the cumulative impacts of upstream land uses, including increased, large-scale development. Protecting riparian buffers across watersheds can help mitigate some of those impacts, like flooding and degraded water quality, and can help some of our most sensitive communities from bearing the brunt of this pollution.

Over the years, PennFuture has prioritized stormwater management and has championed riparian buffers and other ways to protect our waters from stormwater pollution and our communities from flooding. In 2017, we drafted a Stormwater Ordinance Manual which guides communities to better safeguard water sources. In 2022, PennFuture was successful in its litigation against PA DEP, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, resulting in stronger protections from stormwater runoff in our major river basins. More recently, PennFuture successfully nominated the Lehigh River for American Rivers' Most Endangered Rivers List of 2023, and supported the publication of Our Pocono Waters' "Economic Effects of Special Protection Stream Designations in the Pocono Mountains Region". 

Currently, we are actively supporting the passage of the Riparian Buffer Protection Act (HB 1275). This piece of legislation aims to safeguard Pennsylvania's pristine waterways and to invest in the health of the impaired streams impacting our communities by establishing riparian buffers for all the Commonwealths’ waterways. Laws like this help Pennsylvania “protect the pristine and invest in the impaired.”


Riparian buffers and property rights

In response to bills like the Riparian Buffer Protection Act or local ordinances that establish riparian buffers, opponents of these natural and cost effective solutions to pollution argue that creating or increasing riparian buffers will be a “takings.” This argument, however, is without merit.

Takings are an exercise of governmental authority in restricting a property owner’s use of his property. Taking of private property for public use is allowed by the government, but if it goes too far, then the property owner must receive “just compensation” for his loss of property. There is much case law and legal standards that apply to help determine when a restriction on the use of property through regulatory actions is a taking. In short, it’s a balancing act and, on balance, riparian buffers statutes and ordinances are not a takings.  

Regulations that prevent harm to the public or protect a public interest in quality of life and the environment, such as riparian ordinances, are traditionally considered legitimate exercises of the police power that do not constitute a taking. Additionally, many of these regulations, including the Riparian Buffer Protection Act, include exceptions for much of the work that small landowners and even developers may do on their property that could impact the riparian buffer area.  

Riparian buffers are an essential way for Pennsylvania to protect and improve water quality and protect landowners and communities from increased flooding across the state while also respecting the rights of property owners. This is why PennFuture supports actions, conservation measures, and legislation that establishes and protects riparian buffers in Pennsylvania.


How can you help protect water quality and riparian buffers

Check out PennFuture’s Riparian Buffer Policy Brief.

Learn more about how irresponsible development threatens riparian buffers and water quality in the Lehigh River watershed by watching this short video.

Sign and share this petition telling state lawmakers to support HB1275 - the Riparian Buffer Protection Act.

Support PennFuture’s efforts to protect the quality of our waters and protect our communities from pollution and flooding by becoming a member today!

Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up