2023 journal article
Riparian buffers increase future baseflow and reduce peakflows in a developing watershed
Science of The Total Environment, 862, 160834.
Land conversion and climate change are stressing freshwater resources. Riparian areas, streamside vegetation/forest land, are critical for regulating hydrologic processes and riparian buffers are used as adaptive management strategies for mitigating land conversion effects. However, our ability to anticipate the efficacy of current and alternative riparian buffers under changing conditions remains limited. To address this information gap, we simulated hydrologic responses for different levels of buffer protection under a future scenario of land/climate change through the year 2060. We used the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) to project future streamflow in the Upper Neuse River watershed in North Carolina, USA. We tested the capacity of riparian buffers to mitigate the effects of future land use and climate change on daily mean streamflow under three buffer treatments: present buffer widths and fully forested 15 m and 30 m buffers throughout the basin. The treatments were tested using a combination of a future climate change scenario and landcover projections that indicated a doubling of low-intensity development between 2017 and 2060. In areas with >50 % development, the 30 m buffers were particularly effective at increasing average daily streamflow during the lowest flow events by 4 % and decreasing flow during highest flow events by 3 % compared to no buffer protection. In areas between 20 and 50 % development, both 15 m and 30 m buffers reduced low flow by 8 % with minimal effects on high flow. Results indicate that standardized buffers might be more effective at a local scale with further research needing to focus on strategic buffer placement at the watershed scale. These findings highlight a novel approach for integrating buffers into hydrologic modeling and potential for improved methodology. Understanding the effects of riparian buffers on streamflow is crucial given the pressing need to develop innovative strategies that promote the conservation of invaluable ecosystem services.